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Thoughts on Mandela, Kennedy

I was at the Orlando airport drinking pints with a friend when I learned Nelson Mandela died. I had the good fortune to go to South Africa a little over a year ago on business and enjoyed an off afternoon taking in Robben Island. Moved by that experience I picked up a copy of Mandela’s autobiography at the Robben Island bookstore and worked my way through it over the following month.

Mandela’s life was one that humbles the proud, privileged, and self-important. He was a man of humble beginnings who made his way to the city and became a practicing lawyer in Johannesburg as the greatest era of apartheid persecution swelled to consume a nation. He made tremendous sacrifices – many that most of us would deign to make – out of his devotion to liberty for black Africa and to reject injustice. His sacrifices included two marriages and his relationship with nearly all who loved him, but his legacy of those individual sacrifices and the individual sacrifices of others who joined him in the cause of freedom brought a new liberty and a measure of democracy to an oppressed indigenous people.

South Africa has yet to get its feet firmly beneath its nascent democracy. Nearly 20 years in, the nation has foundered in gaining traction and casting off a resentment-based new nepotism that often accompanies a sudden change of fortune and the overturning of a power pyramid. Those previously on the bottom – black Africa – suddenly found themselves on top of the pile, but only as represented by a handful of insiders. In recent years those insiders proved that they are capable of substantial corruption and pocket-lining, suppressing free speech and silencing their critics. The acute pain of the past and solidarity of the movement that brought liberty has obviously faded in the past two decades. The generation has aged and polarized, and the youth who didn’t live the revolution lack personal context and a passion to see the revolution through to completion.

“Madiba”, as his friends called him, was the strongest unifying persona of the era that saw a nation cast off oppression and victimization of native peoples. As a lover of South Africa and a respecter of Nelson Mandela, I fear that the nation will continue to suffer in mediocrity, unmet needs, and broken promises now that Mandela is gone. Like the revolution, his memory and legacy will fade unless a younger generation rises up to finish lifting South Africa to full freedom for all.

I’m sure I’m a bit Pollyannaish on Mandela. He had his detractors, and I’m not South African. I’m perhaps a little more educated than most on the country’s history, but I may be overstepping the bounds of my knowledge or any right to proffer an opinion on South African politics, Nelson Mandela’s legacy, or the progeny of the final end of apartheid. But I see Mandela’s story in a slightly different – and more American – context, too.

On November 22 of this year we observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Born of great wealth, privilege, and personal connections, Kennedy reshaped the political culture within the United States. At a minimum, he represented a generational and technological shift in our Presidency. The first President to be elected who was born in the 20th century, he was also the first of a new “television generation.” Although he was born into great wealth, he served the U.S. in war and bore injuries that would follow him for the rest of his life. He was also an Irish Catholic in a generation when neither was cool.

Although his detractors are many, history generally remembers Kennedy very fondly, as the beginning of a new era. He didn’t deliver America from a regime of great oppression and didn’t make anywhere near the personal sacrifices Mandela made. But maybe like Mandela, his legacy marked a turning point in history. There were many intervening influences but there may be some merit to an argument that Kennedy’s Presidency laid the groundwork for an era of progressive civil rights that benefited black Americans, and has ultimately increased the rights of women, Native Americans, and the LGBT community today.

I write this as one who is a generation removed from Kennedy’s legacy. My parents were 20 and 17 when Kennedy was killed; I wasn’t born for nearly another decade after Dealey Plaza. My only reference is what I’ve learned from them and from the Kennedy legacy built up in our popular culture and literature. Like the youth who have grown up in a post-apartheid South Africa I can only piece together my model of Kennedy from the experiences, memories, and biases of forebears.

Maybe like Kennedy, the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela will similarly serve as a turning point in South African history. Will his legacy spark a generation that pursues liberty and progressive thought? In 50 years will we see a South Africa that has cast off nepotism and the pursuit of self interest?

Don’t hear (or read) what I’m not saying. American culture and politics are deeply flawed – some say broken. Many believe that progressive thought has exceeded moral bounds and I’m not in a position to argue those points right now. The point I’m making is that Kennedy marked a big shift in how a generation addressed civil rights of those traditionally outside the power structure. I will be interested to see if Mandela does the same for South Africa.

All great leaders have great flaws; Kennedy and Mandela were no exceptions. They were human, and in many ways exhibited the same selfishness and failures of integrity that we all face in our varying degrees at different times in our lives. And these two are likely far more different than they are similar; I get that. But I think that in a way, each of them has the potential to mark a turning point for a nation.

Another seed of a thought: Are leaders the catalysts of change, or are they markers of a greater change waiting to be made? Are they the genesis of a wave, or are they merely the break as the wave builds and rolls? Are they the drivers, or are they just the willing ones who sense the building force, give it voice, and sacrifice themselves (and others) to bring the wave to shore?

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