We do love our heroes. They embody all that we would like to see in ourselves. They succeed, or come as close as anyone could. They lead us to a better world, or at least make the one we have more liveable.
We have all kinds of heroes in our culture, but the ones we love best are the stars. We shower fame and riches on our stars. We know movies are made by hundreds, sometimes thousands, and take years of overcoming obstacles - usually studio executives - but we still focus on the lead actors and, occasionally, a director or two. We know sports teams with average talent that play well together will almost always beat the talented team that plays as individuals, yet we still focus on the glamorous statistics and acrobatic moments of glory to tell us which players are worthy of our praise.
True, the best actors and directors raise the game of those around them and draw financing for projects that would otherwise go unseen. The best athletes, likewise, will know how and when to take advantage of their opponents’ mistakes and have the skills to make them pay. The value of talent cannot be dismissed. And yet, time and again we overpay individuals, with both money and praise, for what was a team effort.
We do this because we need heroes, much as we need enemies. With enemies, we can project our fears onto them, we can define our success in competition with theirs, and we can blame them for our own ongoing failures. With heroes, we can project our hopes, we can measure our success by its proximity to theirs, and we can credit them - or, more precisely, our following them - for our own successes.
Nelson Mandela was a hero to many and an enemy to more than a few. He has been compared, perhaps too often, with Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Like them, Mandela was a galvanizing figure for just about everyone who ever heard his name. Where he differed was in his evolution as a leader, going into prison as a man of violence and emerging as a man of peace. It is the emergence of that man and the legacy of his two decades in post-apartheid South Africa that will hopefully help his movement’s message of peace and community to avoid slipping into violence and hopelessness as Gandhi and King’s movements did in the years after their deaths.
Two things working in his and his movement’s favor were Mandela’s longevity and, perhaps most important, the peacefulness of his death.
Had he died violently, as Gandhi and King had, Mandela’s followers may have turned to violence as so many in India and America did in the years following their murders. Had he died at the same age as King, Mandela might be remembered not as a man of peace but rightly described as a terrorist. It is ironic, then, that it may have been his imprisonment that changed him. It is doubly ironic that it may even have protected him and the entire anti-apartheid movement at a time when other non-violent activists such as Steven Biko were being tortured and assassinated by the white-minority led government.
It was Biko’s 1977 murder, like those of Medgar Evers in 1963 and civil rights workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner a year later, that caught the imagination of many outside the country. The Soweto Uprising, organized by students in 1976, had shown the world the brutality of police firing live ammunition on unarmed protesters. The deaths of those students, Biko, and other activists that drove what came next: divestment, one the single most effect political tools ever devised.
Like any movement it started small, a few people answering their consciences with action. As a form of non-violent resistence, divestment may be unparalleled: simply - or not so simply - remove all money invested in a given economy until behavior changes in the way you want. People boycott companies all the time. Sometimes, it even works (sometimes, not so much). What those pushing divestment did was to use boycotts of products and protests against manufacturers and schools to drive political change.
The divestment campaign against the apartheid regime certainly came with risk. Though South Africa was already a pariah state, other countries could, and did, continue spending and investing money there, and short-term economic losses did, as many feared and warned, hurt the very people divestment intended to help. Over time, however, the moral message driven by the divestment movement did a great deal to hasten the end apartheid, something Mandela was quick to credit upon his release.
Mandela’s release is where his work really began. Whatever his role as in winning the struggle against apartheid, whether as a man imprisoned for his beliefs or, more so, as a face on a flag or a t-shirt, Mandela’s greatest triumph was in laying the groundwork for winning the struggle that came next.
Imagine what King could have achieved had he lived, with his rhetorical power and ability to bridge divides. As both King and Gandhi often preached, it requires strength to accept the hand of someone who has wronged you. It requires strength, patience, and a kind of maturity in an individual to help bring those qualities to a culture.
Revenge is popular in entertainment for a reason. Heroes in movies often take violent revenge on those who have wronged them. Heroes in sports face one "grudge match" after another, advertised with big hits, fist pumps, and explosions. Violence is sexy. It’s quick and even if the gratification doesn’t last, in the moment the pleasure is almost narcotic.
Mandela triumphed over this. He lent the weight of his popularity to prevent it, to protect not only a white minority that had good reason to fear violent retribution but a black majority that would have paid dearly for giving in to temptation.
As he once came to symbolize the struggle of his present, Mandela finally came to symbolize a possible future, one still very much a work in progress. It was his role to play, a starring role but one that was meaningless without support. He understood this as well as anyone.
- Daniel Ward