”And sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him.”
That’s a line from the Crash Test Dummies’ big hit from a few years ago, “Superman’s Song.” (For those of you who think I may have misquoted that song, the word is “never” and not “ever.”)
For some reason it was those words from that song that struck me when I first heard that Nelson Mandela was dead. “Superman’s Song” was written tongue-in-cheek but still had a message, at least for me. Those other heroes had their weaknesses, but not Superman. Compared with him, for example, Tarzan was a mindless idiot. But Superman did what he did because that was who he was, and no amount of personal pain or tragedy was going to stop him.
That’s why that song reminded me of Mandela! Because that was Mandela’s life in a nutshell. As the song points out, even the deaths of his family and the total destruction of his home planet could not deter Superman from saving the world from those who would destroy it.
Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” is the torturous journey of a man who would let nothing deter him from his goal of saving his country from the evil of apartheid. He takes the reader from the highest peaks of triumph to the deepest valleys of loneliness and despair. It isn’t just a long walk — it’s a falling down, breaking of bones, skinning of knees and elbows, and falling into mudholes, only to emerge and get up time after time and carry on.
Someone has called Mandela “the global icon,” and indeed that is what he was and is. To the many countries around the world still struggling for freedom from tyranny and the anarchy it brings, and the thousands of leaders who, with great personal courage, risk everything to oppose that evil, he is that icon. His courage has become theirs and his perseverance their own.
Will the world ever see another man like him? Or looking back, have we had more than one already. And what effect have they had?
In modern times, Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind. At that time, what is now the world’s largest democracy, then colonial India, was struggling for independence from Britain. The nationalism movement grew in power until it was sweeping India and becoming more and more violent.
Britain used all her power to try to crush the rebellion, and the independence movement fought back fiercely. Adding to the bloodshed were the continuing struggles between Hindus and Muslims in which it is estimated that a million people perished.
In the midst of it all, one lone voice cried out for a nonviolent independence movement and a peaceful resolution to the Muslim-Hindu conflict. Like Mandela, Gandhi immersed himself in his earlier years in the various struggles for justice among all parties, but especially in the effort to rid the country of British colonial rule.
His chief weapon in his own search for truth through nonviolent means was the fast, and he used it while sacrificing his own health. He was held in such great esteem and love by all his people that he was recognized and accepted as the leader of the independence movement. It was after he had fasted almost to the point of death that, in 1948, he was assassinated.
Again, like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi is seen as a world icon for peace and love as a means to attaining both personal and national goals rather than through violence and conflict.
There have been others down through history, but practically none have stood for nonviolence while in the midst of violence as completely as did those two. Mother Theresa was obviously all about love, but as a means of service to humankind as opposed to achieving political goals. Likewise, people such as Albert Schweitzer and Francis of Assisi. No doubt there are others.
A few days ago, some of us were discussing the possibility of a Gandhi or a Mandela rising up to deliver the American people out of their terrible struggles with violence born out of political extremism. It was agreed that given the “culture of the gun,” which is another way of saying a national preoccupation with violence, it is extremely unlikely.
The great example was Martin Luther King Jr. who, while preaching peace, was cut down by the violence he was exhorting against. Like Gandhi and Mandela, he became a national icon for the nonviolent approach to resolving even extreme conflict.
Perhaps more than any of the others, Nelson Mandela endured extreme hardship and personal sacrifice. He said in his later years that he had sacrificed himself, his health and his family for his country. Perhaps that’s what it takes to be a Mandela or a King or a Jesus. Mandela saw the fruits of his labours for himself in the total demolishing of the hated apartheid system and he, as its nemesis, becoming president of the country which apartheid had by the throat for so long.
Lincoln saw the abolition of slavery, but he believed that war, much as he hated it, was the only solution. You might argue as a Christian that Jesus will hear his message of peace and goodwill echo around the world in a few days. If you want to play devil’s advocate, you might point out that the message, powerful as it is, has not been totally successful. On the other hand, who knows what will happen to South Africa in the next 10 years?
But now, Nelson Mandela stands arguably alone as a man who rose above tragedy and sacrifice to see the realization of his dream.
The excising of a cancer on his country.
Ed Smith is an author who lives
in Springdale. His email address