JOHANNESBURG — “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred, he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me.”
Nelson Mandela — whose centenary was celebrated July 18 — wrote these words in his autobiography in 1994. But they are just as applicable to the world today as they were to the world that Mandela traversed before, during, and after his 27 years as a political prisoner in apartheid-era South Africa.
While watching the celebrations of Mandela’s life in Johannesburg, I wondered what he would think about the state of affairs today in my country, the United States. Despite many differences between Mandela’s South Africa and the United States today, the similarities are striking: brutal police assaults on black and brown bodies, legalized discrimination, pervasive propaganda, communities separated by walls — real and imagined, electoral disenfranchisement and entrenched economic inequality along racial and ethnic lines.
What might Mandela think about the assault on democracy in the United States? Would he propose a multiracial movement for democracy as he led in South Africa? Would he propose reaching across “enemy” lines as he did throughout his own lifetime? And what would he say to people losing hope in the face of intolerance, hate and violence?
Unlike most pro-democracy movements of its time, the African National Congress that Mandela led for many years was committed to the idea of a multiracial society as a matter of principle and strategy. They included sympathetic allies of all races and religions in the movement and all people in their vision for the future. This vision was radical and unique relative to liberation movements of its time and it helped to prevent government and activist violence from leading to civil war, and to create a democracy — albeit flawed — with one of the world’s most inclusive constitutions.
Today in the United States, it is easier to include all people of all races, ethnicities and socioeconomic classes in a vision of the future than it is to include them in our day-to-day political organizing, electoral mobilizing and public narratives.
Mandela, however, would have reminded us that we are all impoverished until we recognize everyone’s humanity. Recognizing the humanity of those we most vociferously disagree with is not only a matter of principle, it is a powerful strategy to say that even our “enemies” have a place in society. When we don’t explicitly leave the door open to marginalized white communities, for example, then they’re right when they say they have no place in our United States.
Inclusion of everyone in our vision for the future cannot be unconditional. Everyone is entitled to her or his own opinion, but not their own facts. Human rights and human dignity must be respected. Yet, Mandela would have reminded us that many people are victims of propaganda — infected with learned prejudices. And demonizing millions of regular people as unredeemable excludes them from our vision of the future.
Hate cannot drive out hate. Just as prejudice is learned, it can be unlearned. And although manufacturers of hate may never change their views, their followers, hypnotized by propagandists, might change their actions, if not their beliefs. Isn’t there a difference between Steve Bannon and our family members who voted for Trump?
We can speak truth to power without demonizing everyone we disagree with. For example, calling family members “racists” shuts down conversation. But telling them they did something racist leaves open a space for dialogue, learning and change. Shutting down those spaces gives them another reason to push us even further away.
Twelfth-century philosopher Maimonides argued that hope is a belief in “the plausibility of the possible.” But the spike in intolerance, hate and violence since November 2016 puts into sharp relief the intolerance, hate and violence that many have endured since the founding of this country. And so where will we find hope? And how will we make the possible more plausible?
Perhaps we will participate in a moral revival through faith traditions. Perhaps we will mobilize to elect candidates at all levels who are representative of our country’s diversity. Perhaps we will get trained as organizers. And perhaps for those of us living with privilege, we will step aside and intentionally create space for women, African-Americans, Muslim-Americans, immigrants and others to lead us.
Hope is not blind faith, although it can be grounded in faith. We can create hope. It can come from learning skills that empower. It can come from protecting those most vulnerable among us. For some, simply surviving may bring hope for a better future. For those who feel safe enough — making ourselves uncomfortable by extending an open hand to family, colleagues and neighbors with whom we disagree might even surprise us and yield hope.
Mandela wrote that he never lost hope for a great transformation in his country because of the courage of ordinary men and women in the struggle. Today in the United States, we have the capacity to create a great transformation. This is not a pitch for a perfect polity — one of the many phony wares that populists peddle. Nor is this a pitch for a golden age of the past or a utopia of the future.
This work requires us to show up in our brokenness and ignorance with a willingness to learn, a commitment to not give up when we make mistakes, which we will, and an understanding that no matter how much we disagree, our humanity and our fates are intertwined.
In 1994, once Mandela was declared the winner in South Africa’s first democratic elections, he reminded South Africans “that the liberation struggle was not a battle against any one group or color, but a fight against a system of repression.” If he were alive celebrating his centenary with us, this is the struggle Mandela would remind us to undertake.
Benjamin R. Naimark-Rowse is a security fellow with the Truman National Security Project and the Topol Fellow in Nonviolent Resistance at The Fletcher School, Tufts University. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.