Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has died, succumbing finally to a lung infection at the age of 95. I was in my twenties when I became aware of Mr. Mandela and his fight to rid South Africa of the scourge that was apartheid. I was in university and followed the news reports and commentary on the radio and television. I remember there was a groundswell of support from the West calling for the South African government, led at the time by F.W. de Klerk, to release Mr. Mandela. Of course, a lot of politicians and celebrities were front and centre in this movement. I remember watching this music video at the time (when I still watched music videos – I was young then):
I remember the fear at the time of his release from prison that South Africa would descend into chaos, with black South Africans taking revenge upon white South Africans, perhaps even a civil war. And there came Mr. Mandela, with great courage and dignity, ascending to the Presidency with a policy of reconciliation. No bloodshed, no revenge, as the rest of the world held its collective breath.
This memory was sparked when I was listening to CBC radio one over the internet this morning. The CBC radio personality was interviewing Mr. Bruce Clark who is the Religion and public policy blog editor for the Economist. At the moment, the world is busy eulogizing and memorializing Mr. Mandela. There are a lot of church services being held and prayers being said. I get it, the world needs to mourn and reflect on the life of a great statesman and a great man. Inevitably, hyperbole will ensue. We will hear that Mr. Mandela was a saint, when in fact he was just a man, with all the folly and foibles and complexities that that entails. It is perhaps human nature to smooth over the wrinkles of a long life and place the ensuing creation on a mantle to be honoured. But what really pricked my ears was when Mr. Clark said that Mr. Mandela was a gift from God.
The statement made by Mr. Clark speaks to a certain mindset that I encounter on an almost daily basis. It is one based on selection bias – god is responsible for everything that is good but is conspicuously absent when things are not good. This bias occurs even when good and not good happen simultaneously. A miracle is proclaimed when there is a survivor of plane crash, but what of the crash itself? If Mr. Mandela was a gift from God, was apartheid also a gift from God?
I will give Mr. Clark the benefit of the doubt and assume his statement is merely a version of proclaiming Mr. Mandela a saint. That is, acknowledging the very best in humankind (while glossing over all of the wrinkles). Mr. Mandela was truly a great man (warts and all) and a great Statesman, and should be remembered as such.