The death of Nelson Mandela at age 95 is one of those profound moments at which point we take a sort of grand cultural, historical, and social inventory of all the good in the world. People in South Africa are busy celebrating his outsized life, moral grandeur, and enduring legacy. Of course, it’s standard protocol for political leaders to issue some formulaic message on Mandela’s significance and the grief that everyone feels over his loss. Because Mandela’s importance transcends South Africa and even politics – he is a symbol with timeless and global reach – it’s not unexpected that celebrity artists, social activists, and change agents of all stripes would be moved to share some token remembrance. We saw them pour forth from official media outlets. We also were also deluged by endless tweets.
But Maya Angelou’s interview on CBS’s Face The Nation certainly ranks as the most important reflection on Mandela’s accomplishments. Angelou is probably the world’s most famous African-American poet as well as deeply connected to the anti-Apartheid struggle (she was at one time married to one of Mandela’s political rivals). She was striving to be poignant when she referred to Mandela as a gentle giant. The elderly poetess reached for the poetic when she eulogized him with the words “his day is done.”
It was, however, a more matter of fact comment by Angelou that truly defines Mandela’s monumental stature. What amazed Angelou was how “Today, there are people who actually go to South Africa for vacation.” An observation that is economic and prosaic somehow captures the transformational impact of this great leader.
The implications of Angelou’s words are staggering. It just takes one person with moral clarity to completely reverse not just a terrible social status quo, but to see to it that its after-effects don’t result in chaos, retaliation, and more repression. The so-called freedom fighters struggling against Arab despot regimes should take note. Many of them would do well to study Mandela’s example. Protest has to have an ultimate endgame in mind, one predicated on stability. Today’s unrest has to become tomorrow’s vacation destination.