The death of freedom fighters is sad for many reasons. One of which is their lives move into the realms of mythology and legend. Something to observe, but to observe only. Like a spectator viewing a sporting event or theatrical performance.
Beyond the well-deserved accolades, few really have an interest in a life of struggle. Indeed, the very mention of the word struggle raises the eyebrows of those who hear this words. The many count it sufficient to claim struggle, simply by observing another whose life is committed to that cause. But every now and then, God graces the planet with enigmatically unique individuals who live in the epicenter of the storm. Individuals whose societal status is eminent personal danger. Where mornings consider whether this would be the day life itself takes an irreversible change or ends. And where evenings find quiet places to ponder why so much wrong for the pursuit of ideas and ideals that are common to all mankind.
Nelson R. Mandela is one of those individuals. This former leader of the African National Congress, liberator, and President of the Union of South Africa, occupies a stage so esteemed, but one that only the most emptied of oneself would choose. For the great price this extraordinary man paid to drive-out a terrible evil and reconcile the misguided citizens of the nation with the maligned, we pause on Dec. 05, 2013 at the news of his passing. Such a death is not replaced. Hence, the numbers of those who would place themselves on the fiery altar for the cause of freedom are reduced by one.
What do we render out of our esteem for a fallen soldier?
A dignitary dies and an unmounted horse is led slowly before countless onlookers. For iconic musical geniuses, sketched likenesses become proud pieces of cultural wears. For a lost loved one, we are sure to place an empty chair that sits quietly at the table. But what do we offer the one who gives years and blood for nothing in return? What do we offer in exchange for one stolen day in a cold prison cell?
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asked not for annual gatherings where furs, tuxedos, and lofty words are on full display. Neither did he ask for stone monuments to look down on a rising tide of greed, war, and seduced power. And yet, these things we pursued. We established. And in them, we consider ourselves identifying with King’s sacrifice, having ourselves sacrificed little. We created t-shirts and caps to remember Malcolm X. Surely, the desire for these memorials were absent from Malcolm’s writings, speeches, and works. Yet, these we created. Sold like bars of soap or a bushel of greens, these pieces of paraphernalia are worn to the commercial delights of their makers. And in remembrance of a peaceful giant for justice, they find themselves on the bodies of young black men who would kill or be killed by another.
We have seen many warriors die. Bob Marley. Rosa Parks. Rev. Dr. Fred Shuttlesworth. Fannie Lou Hamer. Time has been the joy of witnessing their light and the sorrow of witnessing their light growing dim. On the day that Nelson Mandela’s transition is complete, we are reminded that we’ve been this way before.
With each passing and each memorial, we search for a fitting tribute, though being careful to search certain paths while avoiding others. We consider, “What program or event might I plan?” We ask, “Might they come calling for a song, monument, or poem?” These are the acceptable, the comfortable paths along which our search so readily joins. But it is the soldier’s most haunting hope, “Will there be another to search along the path I followed?”
Here, God endows mother and freedom’s soldier with a common yearning to give birth to another who will carry forward. One who seeks justice, more than monuments, aspires a life that breathes justice in another. In exile, the Apostle John’s cry on the Isle of Patmos was not of his plight, but what would happen to the movement entrusted to his band. This concern for another to pick up the tools of struggle and heart for justice is the principle concern. Hence, the search for a fitting tribute begins and ends in us. In you and in me. Whether the struggle sees impoverished communities or the homeless or the plight of the orphaned. Whether the struggle sees unnecessary use of war to subdue and subjugate weak people. Whether the struggle’s attention is drawn to the warehousing of humans for profit or ridding a neighborhood of drugs. Whatever the struggle, the tribute most fitting for what Dr. King called a Drum Major for Justice is to sacrifice for a worthy cause.
In many respect, South Africa remains today what it was for the disproportionately poor black majority that lived under apartheid. While these conditions do not diminish the efforts of Mandela, our need for the storyboard conclusion does not change the harsh realities of the day.
Shanty towns stretched across vast hills and rolling plains. Whole towns that lack running water, gas, and electricity. Forgotten places where women and children must use unclean outhouses that spread dysentery and diarrhea, one of the nation’s leading causes of death. Malnutrition. Bands of orphaned children. Rampant unemployment and underemployment in the shadows of overseas-owned mining companies that send prodigious profits to the West. Abject poverty and stench away from plush wine orchards farmed by workers earning wages inadequate to sustain their most basic needs. Rural towns that see in distance, Durban’s $450 million Moses Mabhida Stadium, hovering as a symbol of progress. But towns that see in themselves epidemic levels of AIDS/HIV that effect 60 percent and more of the local population. Sadly, the once hopeful have given two decades of an ANC ruling party that is now mired in corruption and disconnected from the vulnerable masses for which it was founded. And a government that, like in the Sharpeville Massacre, has turned its guns of war on marching protesters cut down like blades of crimson grass.
What the dispossessed yearned for during the end of apartheid has, for millions, has dimmed to disillusionment and despair. Amid the frustration, new warnings of a coming civil meltdown and resurgence of violence. All without a transcendent figure to lead the way. On the eve that the world searches for a tribute suitable for a king, the land Mandela loved is a powder keg on the brink of volcanic eruption. As such, this juncture of historic significance is as much a time for revealing the next soldier for justice as it is for reflecting on one who is now gone. We thus consider not the politician Mandela; the figure that pundits elevate to hide the conditions that face South Africa. We consider not Mandela’s Nobel Peace Prize that eases our conscience for was done to him wrong. We rather examine the freedom fighter Mandela and charge that resurrecting his spirit is the most fitting tribute.
Nelson Mandela taught the world what Dr. Cornel West often encourages – humando; becoming human by burying one’s selfish agendas and by living selflessly. This stalwart gift from God now returns to rest among the angels. And Mandela leaves to us the next cause for which to fight.
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