It was the 1980s. Ireland was in recession. The ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland, as they were euphemistically-called, and the larger threat of nuclear war, hung over my world like a shadow.
Ireland’s neutrality was no more comfort than a mug of lukewarm cocoa in the Arctic.
I was coming of age, one of a generation born too late to be part of the peace and love movement in the sixties, and facing the reality of oppression and injustice in the world I was inheriting.
Re-discovering the music and hopes of Woodstock in the dark corners of university digs, I was struggling to keep hope alive in the face of the enormous gap between dreams and reality.
With a sensitivity to injustice, bred from a history of oppression mixed with youthful idealism, apartheid became a very emotive and live subject for me, and others around me, as we entered adulthood.
We were part of a world-wide movement that advocated for the boycotting of South African exports until apartheid was lifted, joining protest marches, circulating petitions, debating the injustice of it until the early hours of the morning, and dreaming up schemes that might bring racial and gender equality into the world.
Every few decades, a few rare souls step forward to carry forward the hopes of their generation and, for me and many others, Mandela was such a soul.
He became the symbol of our hope that it might be possible to change societal norms and to bring about a world that was closer to the one we inherently believed to be possible. And he carried with him the projection of our wider dreams and fears, as we watched his role in South Africa’s violent struggle eventually unfold into an era of peace and reconciliation.
As I heard the word of his passing on the morning news, I could almost see decades of news footage reeling before my eyes. Scenes of protesting school children and images of horrific torture—all accompanied by a long forgotten soundtrack of music that had accompanied South Africa’s journey from segregation towards unification.
It was my own personal soundtrack, and not entirely South African, which had included Miriam Makeba, Johnny Clegg & Savuka, even Thomas Mapfumo.
And as the images and music played in my head and my heart, late last week and over the weekend, I began to realize how deeply Mandela’s life had touched me on a personal level, and in ways I am only now starting to realize.
The anti-apartheid movement was one of the first experiences I had, as a young adult, of the positive power that is available in global unity—when people around the world unite around a common cause.
With my limited understanding of economics at the time, or of world politics, I still understood how significant it was when cashiers in a national retailer (the Irish Dunnes Stores) refused to handle South African produce, and when consumers could be seen openly examining produce labels for country of origin. I have to doubt whether these small attempts had any real bearing on ending apartheid, but it gave many of us hope, and reason to believe, that individuals can make a real difference if they come together.
With the release of Mandela from incarceration and the old regime finally coming to an end, the flame of hope was rekindled in the hearts of those of us who had been closely watching the journey unfold.
It seemed justice had won out in the end. Perhaps I, and others, weren’t fools to believe it was possible after all. It was the personal confirmation that I needed at the time that it is possible to change our world if we’re not happy with it.
More recently, though, I’m realizing that his journey has also made me consider two other things that were not so obvious all those decades ago. The first is how challenging it must have been for him, on a personal level, to be a man as well as an icon for his people, and for others around the world.
With so many pinning their expectations—and even their lives—on his words and actions, where was his freedom to have a private life? How great must have been the inner pressure, as well as the outer pressure, to do what he felt he had to do, that he sacrificed dreams he may have had of spending time in an intimate relationship and with his family and friends?
Is this, perhaps, the fear that many of us have about fully following what is in our hearts—that it may lead us into territory where sacrifices are asked of us that we may not be ready for? Not that most of our dreams are of that same scale, nor the sacrifices likely to be either.
And how do I feel about the use of violence? This is one area that I haven’t quite made my mind up about yet. Reading Mandela’s biography, watching recent South African history unfold, and reflecting on the history of violence around the world, I’m caught between wondering if there might not have been another option for South Africa. And yet, realizing that violence was already so widespread at the time, that it seemed the only viable strategy.
Perhaps force is sometimes a justifiable means to an end. I just hope that I’m not asked to step down off my fence any time soon to take a personal stance on the issue.
Most of all, Mandela’s life has left me with a knowing that vision married with action is what the world needs most at times of crisis. Vision—that ability to see how things might be, how life could be—is a wonderful gift. But when it inspires action, it can create fundamental shifts in our reality here on earth, as his life did. And with that beautiful, warm smile he shared so readily.
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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Wikimedia Commons