Nelson Mandela and recognizing greatness

Uncommon lives merit uncommon adulation. Photo: Nelson Mandela

TRENTON, N.J., December 10, 2013 — “ONS DIEN MET TROTS,” reads the sign above the stone archway. “They they oppress us with pride,” our tour guide translated. His face, well-worn by the years, permitted a wry smile to emerge between its deep creases, as he mockingly translated the Afrikaner slogan “We serve with pride.” The sign welcomed us to Robben Island.

We force out an uneasy laugh because the moment of levity is at marked variance from the somber surroundings. This former leper colony turned prison compound looks and smells the part.

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Remote. Desolate. Eerily quiet.

A stone guard tower attaches to the prison — a longish, low to the ground structure — with a fence topped with barbed wire. On this visit it was set against the backdrop of a grey December sky and a vast expanse of the shortest, driest, jaundice-looking weeds. A stench wafted up from the water lapping on the shore of this island that’s scarcely above sea level.

It is true, stricto sensu, what conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer says, that being tortured and forgiving one’s torturers is not unique to Nelson Mandela. It’s true of Natan Sharansky and John McCain.

But Krauthammer misses the point in the sadism that Mandela and his fellow political prisoners experienced at Robben Island; it has few analogs in human history. Having been the site of the first concentration camps, nearly a century before the Holocaust, South Africa has long been a laboratory for inventive, new depths of depravity.

SEE RELATED: Mandela: Champion of liberty, economic opportunity, and justice

On this tour of Robben Island, nearly nine years ago this month, the guide described a prisoner stripped of his clothes and having jumper cables attached to his genitals. Doused with buckets of water, he was shocked with electric current until he defecated on himself, and interrogators pushed his face in his feces in order extract confessions.

The details were so lurid because the prisoner our tour guide described was himself.

Since I first read, as a kid, scenes of young boys being sodomized in exchange for food in Mark Mathabane’s “Kaffir Boy,” apartheid has continued to expand my capacity to be shocked.

I was 15-years-old. Visiting South Africa, as it celebrated ten years of freedom from apartheid, was one the formative experiences of my youth.

Most remarkable was the man telling us this story. He found the strength and fortitude to return to this prison where unspeakable acts were committed against him. Repeatedly. And he told and retold the stories to utter strangers.

Much of the commentary on TV and in print in the wake of Mandela’s death misses this.

In a world where the Turkish government still denies that an Armenian genocide occurred a century ago, where vast swaths of world’s children read from maps that don’t even acknowledge the existence of a whole country, and a Google search for “Tiananmen Square” is blocked in China, getting the perpetrators to admit to crimes is a hugely consequential act.

We miss too, something which I think that tour guide teaches by his example every day: There is a powerfully cathartic effect on the psyche to speaking ones suffering aloud. Naming the pain does some measure of exorcising the hurt.

As post-modern people, we’re supposed to view the Great Man (or Woman) Theory of history as outmoded, unscientific, and belonging to a bygone era. But in the obligatory fad of taking history’s heroes and heroines down a peg, we’ve swung the pendulum too far. We’ve diminished our capacity to acknowledge greatness. We are in want of wonder.

Some people, like Mandel and my tour guide, have lived such uncommon lives and had to summon such uncommon abilities, they have uncommon lessons to teach us about what it means to live a life.

Mandela suffered uncommonly, triumphed over that suffering uncommonly, and displayed a capacity for forgiveness surpassing uncommon, and approaching superhuman. He understood people uncommonly and leveraged that deft human touch uncommonly — learning the Afrikaans of his jailers, understanding the importance of symbolism (rugby), two parts Lincoln, one part Dale Carnegie, given uniquely Xhosa expression in the “Madiba magic.” This made him an uncommon leader: not just founding a nation, but simultaneously saving it from itself.

To call Mandela a great man of history, hero, and closest thing to saint this side of the afterlife is not a negation of his flaws; it is an affirmation of his virtue.

Uncommon lives merit uncommon adulation.

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Charles Badger

Charles Badger has been a columnist for The Washington Times Communities section since 2013. He is a Republican political strategist, speechwriter, and former aide to a Member of Congress, currently working in disaster relief logistics & communications. He holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Berea College.

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