Last week a light went out in the world with the death of Nelson Mandela. When a great leader dies there are lots of obituary column inches to fill. The Mandela legacy is overwhelmingly positive, but a few critics have claimed he sold his own people short by not doing more to redistribute wealth in South Africa and help impoverished black communities. Other critics have cast doubt on Mandela’s conduct, highlighting terrorist activities in the 1960s and his troubled relationship with his first wife.
To the majority however, Mandela is as close to a saint as a politician can get. His campaign for equal rights and justice in South Africa resonated across the world. Mandela’s message was simple and just:
“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society – it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
The most remarkable thing about Nelson Mandela is not the cause he fought for which is self- evidently right, but the way in which he behaved on release from 27 years in prison. Mandela’s decision to forgive his captors, and move on from the past, saved South Africa from almost certain civil war. As Mandela said when he became president in 1994:
“The time for the healing of the wounds has come. The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has come. The time to build is upon us.”
Mandela was always keen to emphasise he was no saint. Humans make mistakes and they occasionally do bad things; Mandela was no different. However, unlike many politicians Mandela had a natural modesty. He avoided adulation and when asked about his saintly reputation replied
“I am not a saint unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying”.
Perhaps it is fitting as we approach Christmas that we remember Nelson Mandela for his good grace, his ability to forgive, and his determination to move on from problems and search for solutions.
So many problems today stem from bad grace and retribution. So many bad situations are made worse, by retaliatory actions that prompt further responses and lead to a vicious downward spiral of argument and conflict.
Christmas is a time for forgiveness, charity and good grace. It can also be a time for disagreement with the pressures of the festive season prompting family disputes.
This Christmas, in various small ways, remember the spirit of Nelson Mandela and the good grace and forgiveness he embodied. Meet upset and anger with kindness and generosity. Look for solutions and not problems. Remember that arguments and conflict belittle us, and that in rising above squabbles we all grow in stature.
Have a Happy Christmas.