Tonawanda News

Columns

December 8, 2013

DUVALL: Remembering Mandela, the practical humanist

Tonawanda News — There aren’t very many people in the world whose death brings a global moment of reflection and introspection. Nelson Mandela was one of those men.

When I heard the news come across the radio driving in my car Thursday I was surprised to find myself a little choked up. I don’t have a personal connection to South Africa or Apartheid. I only know of Mandela what everyone knows — his years in prison on Robin Island, his steely determination to end his country’s practice of subjugating blacks to minority white rule, the Nobel Peace Prize and later his status as an ambassador and statesman for the entire African continent. 

In the days since his death I’ve found myself fascinated by this man’s life and captivated by a story that only in death is being more extensively flushed out.

I had no idea Mandela was born into South African tribal royalty. His father was a tribal chief before the British stripped his title. When Mandela’s father died at an early age, the man who would come to be known by his Western name, Nelson, was sent to live with another tribal leader. 

It doesn’t fit the simplistic narrative of a child born penniless — though he was hardly rich — overcoming poverty to rise to leader of a people. In many ways, Mandela’s stubbornness, friends say, was born of his firmly held belief he was better than his oppressors. 

He wasn’t the stuff of Ghandi or Martin Luther King, though he was every bit as effective. Mandela opposed violence out of pragmatism more than moralism. He was a humanist of the first order who understood a violent uprising would only lead to greater bloodshed, even if it succeeded in overthrowing the Apartheid government.

He is viewed in the eyes of history as a civil rights icon but he doesn’t get enough credit as a shrewd politician.

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