For several weeks, I have read and watched as much as I could on Nelson Mandela, his life and his legacy. This followed on the heels of several weeks of reading and watching as much as I could about the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s death. I surprised myself, since spending that much time on any one subject is increasingly hard, given the competing distractions for my own short attention span. With all the ink and celluloid given over to both men, it seems there is little else to add, except I did not see any commentary which connected the two men, and our fascination with both.
On almost all levels, it’s easy to understand the lack of side-by-side comparison of these two men. Mandela was an exceptional and exceptionally unique leader in this day and age. His own words of avoiding the mantel of prophet in lieu of being a servant, a humble servant, belied the global agreement that he stood above every other leader in our lifetimes. (The few detractors found themselves deservedly isolated and unworthy of any serious discussion, here or anywhere.) Mandela’s ability to find common ground, in a society deeply divided by class, race and culture and steer it towards a peaceful and democratic outcome was a legacy which nearly all praised.
Kennedy, on the other hand, never was able to match such an accomplishment. He never won the Nobel Peace Prize. Few would say that had he lived, he would have achieved the kind of legacy that Mandela built.
Still, I see three ways to connect the two men. First, both touched a global audience, in different ways. Kennedy stood less for accomplishment than for promise, albeit unfulfilled, and probably unlikely to be fulfilled. Mandela emerged from a personal sacrifice of 27 years in prison, full of promise, and was able to realize it, through the strength of his character, his integrity and his vision. Their funerals brought together more global leaders perhaps than any other in the intervening years.
The two men were born a year apart, and they departed the political scene a year apart, Mandela to prison in 1964, a year after Kennedy’s death. The absence of both men from the following decades of active political life left a void in each country. Yet, Mandela was able to emerge to steer his country away from the injustices of institutionalized racism. What has been missing in all of the commentary on Mandela is how his own survival was never guaranteed, especially in a society where so many anti-apartheid activists had been assassinated, exiled or marginalized. We will never know how Steve Biko or Chris Hani may have contributed to the transition from apartheid. Similarly, Kennedy’s absence has been the root of much speculation and debate over the course of U.S. behavior at home and abroad.
I am convinced that the course of both countries’ histories would have been starkly different if Kennedy had lived and Mandela had not survived. South Africa’s ability to steer a course different from Yugoslavia or Zimbabwe lay in the deep pool of human talent of the nation, which Mandela as its leader was uniquely able to tap into and inspire. Kennedy, based on his decisions during the Cuban missile crisis which were so different than the recommendations from his Vice-President and successor, Lyndon Johnson, most assuredly would have steered differently in Vietnam. Ironically, Kennedy’s death, much like Mandela’s survival in advancing the cause of civil and human rights in an unjust society.
Finally, the third area of comparison is personal, and I suspect is shared by more people than imagined. The recent coverage brought back intense personal memories. Like many, I remember the school ground I was standing on when I first heard of Kennedy’s death that Friday afternoon in 1963. The television in our household which we could watch only under the strictest of conditions, was kept on for hours through the funeral and the assassination of Jack Ruby, after church on Sunday.
Likewise, many around the world have memories of the anti-apartheid movement, either as protesters in their own countries or as observers of the visits by the recently released Mandela. I happened to be living in South Africa, working at the U.S. Consulate in Durban, with a front-row seat on the crumbling of apartheid. Like millions across the globe, I remember watching Mandela’s release that warm, sunny February Sunday. Memories of the thrill and the hope of his release were replaced by others of four years of effort, tragedy and turmoil to turn that hope into reality. Through all that was Mandela, his perseverance, his righteousness and his generosity.
The intensity of these memories of Mandela and Kennedy reached similar heights, keeping me in front of the television, tuned to the same radio station and reading to the end of articles and commentary. Both men triggered the memories of my youth, of my adulthood, of hope and inspiration, of a cause larger than oneself.