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Greater Than Gandhi and King

Mandela had the power to be a horror had he not meant and lived what he spoke.

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, December 11, 2013.

Nelson Mandela is gone, finally, after a year or so of false reports regarding his health and well being. The world paid its respects to a guy who was far better than South Africa deserved, and who Obama referenced as the last, great liberator. I hope that isn't true, as there are many in need of their own liberator, but if 'last' was used in the sense of 'latest', I can agree with it.

Mandela was not the world's best husband or father on an individual level, but he was very much a great person, which sounds weird subbing for 'great man.' He was not for vengeance. He was not for petty perpetual feuding. He was for forgiving and reconciliation and moving forward. He established panels instead of courts, where murderers came forward and admitted what they had done and asked for forgiveness and promised to work to justify it, granted or not. It's hard to remember that when these things were proposed, stifled laughter and rolled eyes vied with nausea and screams for blood as the common reactions. How could a hypothetical black father who'd seen his wives and daughters raped and his sons murdered, his house and land torn up and given to sniggering whites, be asked to forego punishment of those men and forgive them? Carefully, and over time, it reasonably turned out, but many such men stood and accepted the apologies and explanations.

For many years in the US, trials of KKK murderers were cynical giggle fests because the jury of peers was actually a jury of bigoted peers, and guilty parties not only went free, but celebrated with the police and jury afterwards. The crimes were never solved, and what happened to the dead - and when - was not told the families even if known. In South Africa, when apartheid fell, a different approach arose, and the same types were allowed to come forward, confess, and the truth was known. And the shame was borne by the guilty, and perhaps that was a more effective punishment.

Or maybe not, but it did no worse than our system. Cheaper, certainly.

Mandela tried hard to be empathetic to whites, and understood after hundreds of years in South Africa they were as native as he was, and he tried to instill that vision into his government and those that followed. He had no desire to see his country in civil war, especially a racist one, and he worked hard to stay open to all sorts of folks.

The man he replaced, F.W. de Klerk, was that nation's last white president, but maybe, because of Mandela, just the latest white president. There may be others freely elected by blacks, and the presence of Barack Obama was illustration to how that can work. "He was a great unifier and a very, very special man in this regard beyond everything else he did. This emphasis on reconciliation was his biggest legacy," de Klerk said after Mandela's death was announced. de Klerk shared a Nobel prize with Mandela for their generally peaceful transition out of apartheid and into a multi-racial democracy. Not smooth going, but the momentum is there and the will is there. When the two of them shook hands or even were treating each other as friends and peers, their often racist and most idiot supporters - whom might be called their respective parties' base - were furious and vengeful at first. That went away.

When Obama was announced to the crowd at the Mandela memorial - and to call it a mere huge crowd understates it - people went euphoric and applauded someone in no small measure a recipient of Mandela's legacy. People tried to touch and greet Obama sensing the issue and moment. One of these was Raul Castro, Fidel's brother and leader of the only real communist government in our hemisphere and someone who, late in life, might imagine and approve of reconciliation panels rather than stark justice.

That handshake was commented upon by those dependent upon the base of one political party. The once estimable John McCain compared it to Hitler and Chamberlain shaking hands, a comparison that fails every application of logic, and illustrates the very attitudes Mandela came to despise. How Mandela achieved and maintained his views after decades on Robben Island made him irrefutably a great man, personal failings and all, more than Gandhi and more than Martin Luther King, Jr. because he came to power and could have become a Mugube. But Mandela snubbed vengeance. Imagine.