In our time of utter moral decadence, he was the only statesman to stand for a higher level of human relationship in the political sphere.
– Albert Einstein, on the death of Mahatma Gandhi.
Sadly, today there does not exist anyone of the moral stature of an Albert Einstein to eulogize the passing of South Africa’s liberator and president, Nelson Mandela. Born a member of the royal family of the Xhosa indigenous nation, Mandela’s struggle to end South Africa’s brutal Apartheid system–mostly conducted behind bars during his 27 years in prison–made him such a global symbol for human rights that the government was forced to set him free in 1990.
Shortly after his release from prison, he came to America to fundraise for his organization, the African National Congress (ANC), now the dominant political party in South Africa. His 10-day visit was a sensation, drawing millions of American from all walks of life to see him speak. Among those who attended his rallies were thousands of Indigenous American who had been inspired by him. Speaking to a massive crowd at the Oakland Coliseum on the very last day of his tour, Mandela deviated from his written remarks to acknowledge the struggle of “America’s first peoples, the Indians.” He had been bombarded by requests from Indians to speak with him and he apologized for not having the time to sit down and talk. Mandela said, “…but I can assure the leaders of the American Indian community that I will return in October.”
Such was his appeal and international standing that Mandela had become the voice for the aspirations of everyone who was oppressed, downtrodden, or poor. But in turn, Indians had been supporting Mandela’s struggle for freedom long before he became an international celebrity. From the late 1960s through the 1980s, the fight for Indian rights was often seen as an international fight for the rights of all people, South Africa included. It was often pointed out how Africa’s “homeland” system was modeled after the Indian reservation system of the late 19th century. In the 1970s and 80s, rallies and protest for American prisoners, such as Leonard Peltier, would inevitably feature images and banners seeking the freedom of Nelson Mandela as well.
Organizations such as Artists United Against Apartheid, which led the cultural boycott of South Africa, and especially their Las Vegas style resort, Sun City, was founded by musical activists, such as Steven Van Zandt, Bonnie Raitt, and Jackson Browne, who had been inspired by the Indian struggle for sovereignty. As the grass-roots “divestment” movement gathered steam in the 1980s, institutions with investments in South Africa, such as colleges, pension funds, and corporations, were forced to unload their holdings, finally forcing the South African government to consider the end of Apartheid. International pressure from people all over the world, not the least of which included American Indians, had set Mandela free.
Yet Mandela’s dignity and eloquence set him apart from other activists and made him a global icon. When the South African government offered to release Mandela, if only he would give up his struggle to end Apartheid, Mandela refused, preferring to stay behind bars than sacrifice his principles. His upbringing as a tribal leader made him appreciate the need for consensus and his style of leadership reflected that inclusive approach. Moreover, Mandela’s humility made him beloved as well as respected. On his grand tour after his release from prison, he would bring crowds to tears as he thanked them for being his inspiration.
If Mandela did not return to America in October of 1990, as he had promised, to meet with Indian leaders, it was completely understandable. Now the undisputed leader of South Africa, it would require all of his political skills and tremendous personal charisma to keep South Africa from descending into a massive civil war. His spirit of compromise, while adhering steadfastly to his main political goals, nurtured the country’s relatively peaceful transition to democracy and he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994.
Uncorrupted by power and refusing to create a cult of personality common to other revolutionaries-turned-political leaders, Mandela declined to run for a second term and returned to private life to work on social issues such as the AIDS epidemic in Africa. When Mandela stepped down as president at the dawn of the new millennium, he was a lonely figure. The line of humanitarian leaders and extraordinary individuals who fought for the well being of all people, such as Gandhi, Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, had come to an end. On a planet where countries are now almost exclusively led by mafia bosses, corporate shills, or religious fanatics, Mandela’s death on December 5 leaves the world empty of international figures who champion the cause of equal rights, peace, and human dignity. Like a great flame that lit up the world, but eventually grew dim, Nelson Mandela is now gone. Let us hope a few sparks remain that may kindle a new flame, and lead us out of this darkness.
Alexander Ewen, a member of the Purepecha Nation, holds a B.A. in history from the University of Virginia. He has written numerous articles, chapters, and papers about Native American issues. He lives in New York.