“He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.” President Obama could not have been more correct when speaking of the death of one of the greatest statesmen, human rights activists, and leaders to ever grace this planet. Although this quote is a terrible case of plagiarism (see Edwin Stanton’s famous quote upon the death of Lincoln), Nelson Mandela undoubtedly belongs to history and the ages. While we should remember him for what he stood and fought for, his legacy should best exemplify for all of us that sometimes it’s perfectly acceptable, and sometimes necessary, to rebel, act with civil disobedience, or fight for a moral cause.
Growing up as kids we’re taught to obey the rules, not to question our parents, listen obediently, and act in accordance with the law. But what if you grow up in South African apartheid? Nazi Germany? Soviet Russia? The Jim Crow south? Colonial America? Or any other human society where people have been unjustly oppressed, subjugated, or tyrannized? Now I’m not at all trying to advocate for children to act with civil disobedience against their parents (for they probably know better), but too often people are sheep that follow instructions or laws without thinking about their moral consequences, or whether they’re even just in the first place.
St. Augustine once said: “An unjust law is no law at all.” While we can save a discussion about justice and moral relativism for another day, the point of this quote is that we should always question. Is the law restricting or punishing people because their actions or inactions are inherently evil or morally reprehensible? Or is the law restricting or punishing people because society says their actions or inactions are bad? When it’s the latter, governments throughout history have had the tendency to persecute and oppress different classes of people for no just reasons whatsoever.
This type of oppression is what Nelson Mandela grew up in as a young boy in South Africa. But instead of obeying the law and doing what he was told, Mandela fought back against the shackles of South African apartheid. After trying to take a formal route by attending law school and helping to form a youth league in the African National Congress, Mandela grew frustrated with the old, quasi-obedient ways of operating. He opted for a more militant approach. This led him to drop out of law school and begin a life dedicated to civil disobedience. Although his actions were not always civil, he claims he was trying to persuade the government in the only language they seemed to understand – violence. His actions against government symbols and entities (i.e. post offices and buildings), his exit from the country to receive military training, and his other “treasonous” actions led to life imprisonment in 1964.
Mandela was willing to sacrifice everything to achieve equality in South Africa. On countless occasions he said he would die for the cause if he had to. Few leaders in history are inspired by such egalitarian motives. Gandhi and MLK are others who come to mind (two men who also became famous for practicing satyagraha or civil disobedience). It was this ambition and these motives that inspired Mandela to forgive, reconcile, and act magnanimously toward the South African regime that had oppressed him and the majority of the South African people. With a real threat of civil war hanging over South Africa, it was Mandela who encouraged everyone to embrace and unify with the oppressors for the benefit of all. The courage and magnanimity this must have taken is unthinkable. But without this approach, it’s frightening to think what the alternative could have been.
Mandela’s actions are a great illustration of injustice spurring disobedience. At the time, his disobedience and unlawful actions sent him to prison. His figurative shackles from apartheid transformed into literal chains of imprisonment as he was found guilty of conspiracy and treason. Many people agreed with his imprisonment at the time, as they did when MLK was thrown in the Birmingham City Jail. The United States government even had Mandela and some of the other members of the African National Congress on the terror watch list until 2008 for his militant actions against the South African government (thank God we finally reverted to the right side of history).
Although Mandela probably broke the law at the time, his moral compass remained true, his convictions steadfast, and his spirit unwavering. So today when we remember Mandela, let us remember the statesman, leader, and activist he was, but let us also be inspired never to shy away in the face of oppression. MLK once said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Mandela voraciously fought back against these threats his entire life, and so should we.