A Long Walk For Us All, RIP Nelson Mandela

Sometimes I feel like we are wading into treacherous waters here at Civinomics. Our intent is to reduce the barriers to civic participation, and to galvanize people to take a more active role in their communities.  But there’s a reason why many of us avoid anything political: the civic process can oftentimes be downright unpleasant, a reality that one of our co-founders, Robert, describes in a previous blog post.  Both locally and nationally, too often our political debates are framed from an “us vs them” mentality, with all sides guilty of gratuitous demonization.  At our very own Civinomicon conference, for example, we knew there was potential for the event to implode into a cacophonous shower of angry spittle, thus one of the first speakers was a specialist in conscious and respectful communication.  I believe it’s important that a more widespread political conversation take place, but at the same time I’m certainly not looking forward to a life of constantly bracing myself against torrents of strong beliefs and alienating diatribes.

In light of this, a great man passed away earlier this month who was the embodiment of civility and reconciliation.  As someone in his mid 20s, I haven’t experienced, on any personal level, Nelson Mandela’s work, and so I hold no illusions about being able to elucidate his life and accomplishments to the extent that they deserve.  But as we remember him I would like to highlight how his example might serve as a model for elevating our civic discourse.

There isn’t exactly a lot of middle ground in the question of whether segregation should be codified or not, and so it might seem that even if apartheid ended, South Africa would be fated for constant domestic strife.  Yet what sets Mandela apart, and a large part of why his country became the stable, egalitarian state it is today, has to do with the magnanimity he showed towards his opponents all throughout his “long walk to freedom” (now the subject of a major Hollywood film). Indeed, many of those who persecuted him would come to be among the ones who respected him the most.  The prosecutor in his 1962 trail requested to meet with him alone before the sentencing to shake hands and wish him well.

While in jail he assisted his warders with their essays, and before long won their respect and admiration.  In mid jail sentence he met with then president of South Africa P.W. Brotha, notorious for his enforcement of white supremacy, and with humor and civility succeeded in thoroughly charming the president.  And, rather than embarking on a campaign of vindictive retribution against the old regime upon his release from prison in 1990, his actions included visiting the widow of Henrik Verwoerd, one of the architects of apartheid, wearing in public a jersey of the Springbok rugby team, until then a symbol of white oppression, and forming the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which provided an equal opportunity to both the victims and perpetrators of apartheid to recount their stories and in some cases request reparation or amnesty.

Looking back at our current politics, the constant vilifying of the “other side” in this country, both at the local and national level, seems nothing short of absurd.  George W. Bush a Nazi?  Barack Obama a Marxist who cares only about enforcing his death panels?  A city council member who supports some new ordinance is suddenly our very own Hitler?  The genius of Mandela is to show that not only are these polemics unjustified, but that the opposite approach actually works much better.  His commitment to human dignity and respect for others, exhibited equally among his allies and oppressors, played a vital role in securing his success.

Election 2014 is just under a year away, but already one can see the storm clouds building.  In an era where we are collectively force-fed round after round of attack ads and the political consultants have calculated that the only sure-fire way of winning elections is to bludgeon the opposition relentlessly and with impunity, I’m inspired by the fact that a man succeeded in ending one of the 20th century’s greatest disgraces in large part by showing courtesy, maintaining his sense of humor, and making peace with former adversaries.  Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela.

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