When I was growing up, it was a truism: apartheid would end, but not in our lifetime. And when it did end, it would be bloody, a civil war. I heard about the African National Congress and the Afrikaaners, learned about Stephen Biko, and listened to the music of Miriam Makeba. But I honestly don’t remember when I first heard the name Nelson Mandela. My parents had moved to the United States from South Africa when I was one-and-a-half, temporarily they said, and in order for my father to receive further training as a pulmonologist. But four years later, with the Soweto riots, another child, a dog, and my mother herself in a residency program for psychiatry, my parents decided to remain in the United States. Yet political conversation often turned to South Africa.
Luckily, though, we, like so many white South Africans, were wrong. Apartheid ended and there was no South African civil war. And much of this is due to Nelson Mandela. There is a passage in Pirkei Avot that I often think of together with Mandela. When the sage Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai challenges his students to go out and search for the way of life to which a person should cleave, his student Rabbi Shimon says: “One who can see what will be born” (Pirkei Avot 2:13). I understand Rabbi Shimon to be teaching us not only about the importance of foresight but also about the necessity of striving to see beyond our particular circumstances and envision another and better world. Mandela, with his ability to imagine a post-apartheid world, surely saw what could be born. What truly sets Mandela apart from other leaders is his ability to imagine and then enact, carefully and meticulously, a different way in which to birth that world. The revolution, he saw, did not need to be violent. Mandela’s willingness to negotiate calmly and firmly with his jailers as well as his commitment to truth and reconciliation all contributed to apartheid’s end. Instead of bloody revolution, revolution came through the first national, one-person-one-vote election on April 27, 1994.
I went to the South African Consulate in New York City to vote in this first free election (anyone born in South Africa was eligible to vote), and I remember receiving the ballot and marking with my thumb next to the picture of Nelson Mandela for president and then another mark for the African National Congress – an action I could not have imagined previously. I also remember the pictures in the paper of lines stretching on-and-on at the South African polling stations.
The mark of Mandela’s greatness lays both in his ability to see what could be done and then to move others, even his enemies, to a place where they too could join with him in enacting his vision of a new South Africa. Nelson Mandela gave all South Africans the gift of their own humanity.
Rabbi Jane Kanarek, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumna (Class 13), is the Assistant Professor of Rabbinics and Associate Dean of Academic Development and Advising at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. She received her rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Jane can be reached at email@example.com.