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A legacy of forgiveness and friendship

High school subjects are familiar to most of us. There is algebra, a foreign language, P.E., history, and government, to name a few. However, in 1974, my high school added one called “Modern World History.”  It was an examination of selected topics from World War I until the present. Our teacher was Colonel (Ret) Gordanier and he had been to just about all the places he taught about and that perhaps is why he gave special attention to South Africa. It had left a strong impression on him.

We learned about the Zulus and the Boers. And we also learned about Apartheid. It’s safe to say that none of us had ever heard of it, but in the few weeks we studied the country and its harsh system of racial degradation, our reaction was pretty much the same. How, in 1974, did a system like this exist? Of course, we railed against, questioned it, but like most high school students, after we took the midterm, we moved on. But, in South Africa the struggle against this oppressive system had another 18 years to run.

At about that time, a man who few people outside South Africa had ever heard of, was serving his tenth year at Robben Island Prison. His name was Nelson Mandela. He had been sentenced to life at this remote detention center and as one of his peers noted, “…in those days life meant life.”  Remarkably, Mandela survived and equally remarkable, though allowed relatively little contact with the outside world, he was able to smuggle out occasional notes and reflections from his Robben Island jail cell. Over time, more people in South Africa and around the world started to learn who he was.

Nelson Mandela died last week. He was 95 and had spent nearly a third of his life in prison. He argued for freedom and the end of Apartheid. However, he did so in a way that made it difficult for his jailers to demonize him. He talked about human dignity and right along with that about forgiveness and a future of cooperation and brotherhood. Mandela, as his name became more politically charged was offered release on two different occasions. He turned them both down. He wasn’t released until 1990.

When finally the South African white run government decided it was time to move towards majority rule, it was Mandela who led the negotiations on behalf of the African National Congress. In 1993, just three years out of prison, he was elected President. What defined his term as President was his commitment to reconciliation. There would be no revenge seeking, no getting even with the whites, and no abuse of power. His message was forgiveness and friendship. Mandela once noted, that when you’re in prison, “they” can take away everything, but they can’t take away your heart and your mind. That is, unless you give them away. He resolved never to part with them. Which, for the happiness and health of a nation, and a powerful message to people everywhere, is his great legacy.

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