Skip to Main Content


Reflections upon the death of Nelson Mandela

By | Leave a Comment

I was in the middle of listening to the folk anthem If I Had a Hammer when I learned that Nelson Mandela died last Thursday. Afterwards, I watched this video of the folk trio Peter Paul and Mary singing in 1986, at the global height of the anti-apartheid movement, No Easy Walk to Freedom: “Nelson Mandela now we’re walking with you / No easy walk to freedom / No easy walk to freedom / Keep on walking and you shall be free / That’s how we’re gonna make history…/ Keep on walking and apartheid will fall.” And so Nelson Mandela and the masses in South Africa, supported by people around the world, kept on walking, and apartheid did fall.

William Steward said of Abraham Lincoln, as President Obama echoed in his tribute, “Now he belongs to the ages.” If President Lincoln passed into the ages upon his death, upon having successfully concluded his evolved imperative to use his office to turn a war for union into a mission to end slavery and give democracy its second American birth, Nelson Mandela belonged to the ages even in his life, for years now.

I had the privilege of seeing and hearing him speak at the 2004 International AIDS Conference in Bangkok. Nelson Mandela had taken up his country’s and the world’s struggle against AIDS as one of his primary causes after his presidency. Few of the particulars of that moment remain in my mind, but what does persist is my feeling of awe of being in the presence, in that vast auditorium, of sharing a moment in space and time with a human being who not only led the transformation of his country into the “rainbow nation,” but also was a living embodiment and symbol to the world of the possible, of reconciliation, justice, human rights.

What rare and precious few are those who can bring the world together in mourning and celebration, who is a shared point of light for countries, even peoples, otherwise fraught with conflict, from Venezuela and Iran to the United States and Israel – and probably virtually every country in the world. Why is it that such lights, while they shine every night, if rarely with the brightness of Nelson Mandela, we see only as shooting stars, unifying us for only a flash in time as they fade from the world of the living? Why is the love and justice and freedom, the quest to understand one another, to secure human rights for all – that constellation of concepts that defines the best of humanity, all the Nelson Mandela represented and practiced – not something that can unite us at all times? Why must we let the inspiration, the ideals, that rise to the height of our consciousness at this moment remain too often apart from the daily affairs of people and nations? Why must we let them remain attached to the person of our adoration when they would like nothing more than for their ideals to be our ideals, their overaching goals our goals – even as we might seek them in our own very personalized, particularized ways, walking our own roads – for love and human rights and justice to be about us and our lives, our guiding stars, not only theirs?

There is a tradition, rooted deep in history, of an Olympic truce. What of a Nelson Mandela truce, for all those who would claim his ideals yet still raise arms, whether real or their contextual equivalents, against others? A truce, not only for a period of time but for all time, in Syria, in Sudan, in the Central African Republic, peace with justice, a truce that as Nelson Mandela shepherded through in South Africa is a peace that had human rights as its foundation?

When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, Robert Kennedy’s words of wisdom to a shocked community, since etched into posterity, were of healing, of coming together, of people black and white, of people everywhere, joining in love and justice and compassion, rather than being torn apart by hate. I thought of his words upon reading of Nelson Mandela’s death, for he too offered that message, that prayer, and lived it. And seemingly against all odds, enabled his nation to live it too. Yet now as ever it is a message that the world needs, as does his nation. For South Africa faces new conflicts and challenges, of new and deep inequalities, of crime and social conflict. His country, the world, still we need to come together looking towards a shared future, the quest of Martin Luther King, of Nelson Mandela. Both are remembered for their great accomplishments, yet surely would both be the first to remind us of how far we still have to go.

To again channel Peter, Paul and Mary, we must all take our place on the Great Mandela (the Wheel of Life). For most of us, the best we can achieve – and it is an achievement that is of the greatest importance – is that we live a life where we do our best, that we live in our brief moment in time as best we can, striving for what is right. We can choose our course, but not where it will take us, how far we can travel.

Nelson Mandela chose his course, and along with so many other South Africans, some with their names also etched in history and others visible only through their legacy, brought his nation in a fundamental way – for all that remains to be done – to a new destination, to the destination that he gave his all to reach. He was that very rare person who, as President Obama said Thursday evening, “took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”

If we would all choose the same course, that of healing and human rights, of understanding and of justice, we too will not only strive for what is right, but be able to help create communities and countries, a world that has in it more right and less wrong than today’s world, that is ever closer to one of peace and love with justice. Let this moment not pass, but instead, as Nelson Mandela said in his inaugural address, let us “act together as a united people…for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all….Let freedom reign.”

Nelson Mandela now rests forever upon the shores of a sea of tranquility. His work goes on. That rests with us.

Thematic Areas:

Comments are closed.

The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

See the full disclaimer and terms of use.