Published in The Sunday Times and The Huffington Post
The outpouring of global love for Nelson Mandela shows that people everywhere crave courageous leadership and celebrate those who are prepared to break the rules to uplift humanity. Mandela remains a rare role model of substance in a world dominated by the pursuit of fame, wealth, fame and power. His story is one of vision, hope and healing and is a powerful testimony to the human quest for freedom.
The teachings of Madiba, the tribal name by which he is affectionately known in South Africa, offer us an opportunity to reflect on the values and principles that we hold. They challenge us to ask whether we are upholding our beliefs by putting them into action in our day to day lives and whether these values are represented in our economics, our politics and our media. They also show us the power that one person can have in transforming lives and nations. We don’t all need to become Mandelas, but we can each achieve great things in small ways.
If Mandela spoke to us today I wonder what he would say about the modern struggle for freedom? What would he say about the global financial cartels that are subverting democracy, about the ongoing brutality and hunger strikes in Guantanamo Bay, or about the hunting of whistle-blowers and prisoners of conscience such as Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden?
In a world of lies, spin, and doublespeak telling the truth deserves to be celebrated and rewarded. As with apartheid South Africa, when the rules that are supposed to protect people are actually oppressing them, there is a duty to dissent. It is no accident that modern day freedom fighters are being demonized in the same way that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan called Nelson Mandela a “terrorist” during the ANC campaign to end the injustice of apartheid.
Surely we don’t have to wait until the history books are written, until Edward Snowden is celebrated for giving up his well-off lifestyle and his freedom to reveal how we’re being illegally spied on. Or, in this Orwellian age, is it better to keep our head down and pretend this is nothing to do with us, for fear we too will be targeted as thought criminals and potential terrorists?
The tensions involved in navigating truth these days are evident in the mixed messages conveyed to our young people. On the one hand parents and teachers do their best to instill a strong sense of fairness; telling children to be kind and honest, don’t fight, share, help others, and speak out when something is wrong.
This basic moral code underpins much of our society but exists side by side within a contradictory dog eat dog world where bullying, image, money, ego and war making often reap the rewards. Young people are encouraged to become customers and consumers first and citizens second, but not to become activists like Nelson Mandela who fearlessly challenge injustice wherever they see it. If they did, then 25-year-old soldier Bradley Manning might be a Nobel Peace Laureate rather than being locked up in solitary confinement for upholding his legal duty to report war crimes.
In this competing moral order it’s hard not to be compromised. We’re rewarded for keeping up appearances, turning a blind eye, and keeping busy by pushing on up the ladder regardless of who is left behind. No time to worry about war, poverty, human rights violations, corruption, or environmental destruction. Someone else will look after all of that. Or will they?
This moral maze suits the dominant version of political and economic development where the fittest thrive and the majority is left to fend for survival. It does so by promoting individualism over community cooperation, and by keeping us fearful, separate and in competition with each other.
It weakens the natural human desire to care for each other and keeps us focused on individual achievement and progress. The logic is that if we focus on our own self-development then others will do the same and we’ll meet down the road either as winners or losers.
The reality is that within the competition paradigm we all end up losers as when one suffers, we all suffer. This is something Nelson Mandela understood well when he embraced his oppressors upon release from prison. He understood that an injustice to one was an injustice to all and that without forgiveness there could be no peace. He thereby helped to prevent retribution, vengeance and hate by promoting cooperation for the common good of all South Africans, regardless of race.
Mandela represents the higher human spirit and the light within each of us that craves truth, justice, fairness and freedom. From adversity and against all the odds, he has stood for what is right and for the betterment of all. He overcame the injustice of 27 years in prison, offered reconciliation to those who jailed him, and gave the world a profound lesson in leadership, love and forgiveness.
When confronted with despair in this age of great change, we could do well to remember the life of Nelson Mandela and to invoke his enormous spirit and courage. None of us is perfect and Mandela is no different, but he has shown us how great the human spirit can be even in the darkest hours. ‘Nothing is impossible until it is done,’ he once said.
His legacy is a challenge to us all to rise above adversity, to unlock our own greatness, and to uplift each other. Let us honor Mandela through our actions and by carrying the flame of hope and freedom forward for future generations.
A selection of Ruairí's articles published in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, the Sunday Times, the Huffington Post, and other publications.