I recently watched the 1996 Academy Award-nominated documentary film Mandela not long after the famed South African anti-apartheid activist who became the nation’s first Black president retuned home from a hospital stay at the end of last summer. It looked at moments during his hospitalization that he might not survive. The movie made me appreciate that I have largely lived in the same era as such an admirable man, and hope that at age 95 he continues to live as long as possible (and still enjoy a quality of life, of course). The planet is a better place with the likes of Mandela among us.
But before I go further, a cautionary from the man himself: “One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image that I unwittingly projected to the outside world of being regarded as a saint,” he says of his 28 years behind bars as a political prisoner. “I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
One could say that sounds like becoming modesty. But in Nelson Mandela’s case it’s likely sheer honesty and realism, as all humans are imperfect to say the least, a mixture of good, not so good and bad traits. Frequently with great men and women also come great flaws and foibles.
You won’t find any evidence of those in Mandela, though one does get a sense of his profound honesty that supports his contention that he is no saint, far from it. And that modesty, at least in his goals, was never a Mandela trait. After all, to even think that he might help change South Africa’s standing racial segregation that became law in 1948 was maybe not an impossible dream, but certainly one with low odds of success.
The film is a highly positive telling of his life story – rising from a royal tribal family to become a lawyer, crusader, international cause célèbre and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize – if not exactly glossy. The struggle he helped lead was a messy one in what was an even messier nation during its time under apartheid as not just the law but also a primary aspect of South African culture. One thing that struck me while watching the movie was how such a profound change as ending apartheid happened, when it finally came about, without much chaos, and in a nation where the conflict up to the point had been at times bloody and violent.
I suspect that Mandela might credit South Africa and its people with that accomplishment rather than himself. On the other hand, there’s no denying that he served as an inspiration and rallying point for his nation’s fellow Blacks and progressive whites as they sought to end institutionalized racism, oppression and injustice.
Critic Roger Ebert did observe that the movie could have delved further into the political and cultural complexities and maneuvering within the final years and months before the end of apartheid. But this is Mandela’s story, and the film is a celebration of his rather amazing life, challenging adversities and profound achievements.
Even the fact that Mandela rather pointedly shrugs off any intimations of sainthood is an admirable quality among many found in the film. One maybe not so-oft-cited but impressive to me is his humor and good nature after living through circumstances like hard labor in prison that might embitter other men. What I also found notable is how he seemed to comfortably stride across both native African culture and modern Western civilization, as if perhaps he had a vision that only from blending both could a new and thriving Africa emerge. And even if he’s not a saint, the transformation of his nation was something of a miracle.
I was also struck by Mandela’s dignity and nobility suffused with noblesse oblige. As his time alive simply can’t be much longer, Mandela is an all-but must-see movie for progressives either before or soon after his eventual passing. His best qualities are those anyone who wishes to be a better person should strive to adopt and/or cultivate and follow no matter what else in our character and personalities may otherwise disqualify us from sainthood. And there, in my view, lies true greatness.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2013
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