Updated: December 10, 2013 6:56AM
Leaders will gather from across the world to pay tribute to Nelson Mandela this week, just as South Africans gather from across the country to say goodbye to “Madiba.”
Nelson Mandela had no financial fortune. He led no armies, won no victories on the battlefield. He was, perhaps, at his most powerful when he was not in the presidential office but in a cell at Robben Island.
Mandela, like Jesus, Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, met external prosecution with internal character, indomitable will and stoic sacrifice. Jailed for 27 years, he spent his time learning and teaching, even mastering the language of his oppressors to be able to communicate with them. He showed the power of unearned suffering and untarnished vision. He wouldn’t allow his persecutors to bring him down to their level. He knew that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth would leave all blind and toothless.
Political power can come from the support of voters. Entertainment power comes from the applause of crowds. Economic power comes from money, military power from guns. But those who serve and sacrifice for a cause greater than themselves accrue power from their honor, their example, and their inspiration. Dr. King argued that this power is available to all of us. All of us cannot be famous or well known. All of us cannot be great, but all of us can serve.
In celebrating Mandela, we focus on his willingness to forgive, but pay too little attention to those who did the persecution or what needed to be forgiven. The same is true of Dr. King. We focus on his willingness to sacrifice, but less on who forced that sacrifice.
Against apartheid, Mandela and the African National Congress had few allies in the West. Fixated on the Cold War, America and Britain appreciated the “stability” and anti-communism offered by the apartheid regime. Ronald Reagan adopted “constructive engagement” with apartheid while dismissing Mandela as a communist and adding the African National Congress to the terrorist list.
America turned, but only because Americans, and particularly African Americans, exposed and opposed the moral disgrace of constructive engagement with apartheid.
Dr. King and Nelson Mandela were both arrested in 1962. Each was aware of the other. Each saw their national struggle in an international context. Both were living under apartheid. Both were facing the same economic, political and exploitative alliances. Both were attacked as communists and terrorists. In America, Dr. King rallied a minority that was locked out. In South Africa, Mandela roused the vast majority.
The Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. advanced first. We used our new strength to help end apartheid in South Africa. We had the right to vote, to petition and to protest. Harry Belafonte engaged South African artists and musicians to spread the word. TransAfrica and the Free South Africa Movement organized civil disobedience that led to jailings for over a year. Randall Robinson, Roger Wilkins, Mary Berry, Rev. Walter Fauntroy and Eleanor Holmes Norton inspired thousands to join the protests. Rep Barbara Lee, Ronald Dellums and Maxine Waters pushed the fight for sanctions in the Congress.
The union movement — led by Bill Lucy and the Coalition for Black Trade Unions, by the American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and by the AFL/CIO — mobilized to demand change.
In 1984 and 1988, my presidential campaigns called for sanctions on South Africa as a rogue nation. At the Democratic conventions, I called our kinship with South Africa a moral disgrace, forcing Democrats finally to speak clearly. As legislators began to get arrested in front of the South African embassy, colleges and pension funds began to disinvest. Businesses felt the heat.
Finally, Congress overturned a Reagan veto and imposed sanctions. And the apartheid regime realized that the future was largely in the hands and heart of Nelson Mandela.
Nelson Mandela and Dr. King are no longer here to lead, but their example and their vision continue to show the way. Now in the U.S. and in South Africa, apartheid has been defeated, but racial exclusion is supplanted by economic disparity. We are free but not equal. There is a growing gulf in income, opportunity, education, health care and access to capital. Nelson Mandela and Dr. King led us a long way, but we have miles to go before we rest.