Once every few decades, someone like this comes along. Someone so powerful in his approach and compelling in his message that, with his own hands, he bends the arc of history.
Not all who bend the arc bend it toward good. Not all who bend the arc are made of a moral fiber that causes us to revere them as well as respect them. Nor are all who bend the arc lucky enough to live to see the world changed by their efforts.
Nelson Mandela is the exception. As I write this, the beloved Nobel Peace Prize winner lies gravely ill. For weeks we have heard of his decline, somberly intoned by news anchors from Minnesota to Mozambique. Whatever the continent on which we live, what might we learn from a 94-year-old born in an African village completely removed from our reality?
The power of persistence, perhaps. Twenty-seven years in prison is testimony to the power of persistence. And yet, persistence by itself is not the mark of greatness. More remarkable is that those prison decades did not poison his spirit. Such is the power of hope.
Against all reasonable expectations, Nelson Mandela believed that a social structure with every rule rigged in favor of the ruling minority could be changed. In an unpublished autobiography written in prison, Mandela wrote, “We live in the hope and confidence that one day … all men, the exalted and the wretched of the earth, can live as equals.”
His statement is also a lesson in the power of idealism. Racial and economic equality still do not exist in South Africa, but that proves another point. In Mandela’s world, striving for the ideal is not a fool’s pursuit and that attaining the ideal could take a few centuries.
It might seem paradoxical that this hopeful, persistent idealist with an expansive, fiercely held notion of moral good was such a hard-core pragmatist. Here’s another lesson from Mandela. He knew that destroying and replacing a corrupt social structure required the power of partnership. He danced with his oppressors, and they with him. Likely this dance was not one of preference. Instead, it was the potent pragmatism of politics and of enduring peace. It was, in part, what allowed the astonishingly peaceful transition of the presidency from the white hands of F.W. de Klerk to the black hands of Nelson Mandela.
In 1993, Mandela and De Klerk jointly received the Nobel Peace Prize. “Controversial” does not begin to describe the reaction. While it was easy to see that a long-abused champion of the oppressed was worthy of the prize, many found it offensive that his former oppressor received it as well. But such is the stuff of peace. Mandela understood this. Whether he agreed with it is a different question.
Although we had the honor last year of hosting laureate F.W. de Klerk at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum and learning more of his role in the remarkable dismantling of apartheid, we have not had the honor of hosting laureate Nelson Mandela. But from half a world away, we have seen what it takes for this man to bend the arc of history.
Maureen K. Reed is the executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, which is jointly hosted by Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs.