The Lessons of Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom: A Testament to Transformation

by Erika R. George

Hamba Kahle Tata Madiba

World leaders gathered in South Africa on International Human Rights day to pay respects to Nelson Mandela, a revolutionary leader who devoted his life to making human rights a reality for the millions of South Africans denied dignity under a racist Apartheid regime.  This December 10th we marked the 65th Anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights we also celebrated a life that was testament to transformation. 

Mandela’s life became a beacon of light that allowed humanity to see the possibility of a free future lived in the spirit of “Ubuntu.”  My South African friends translate Ubuntu as: “people are people through people.” It is an African expression for a universal concept that I understand to be at the root of human rights universality: respect for our shared human dignity. South Africa’s liberation struggle was rooted in a demand for dignity.  Mandela’s leadership made possible what few could have imagined—a peaceful transition to a democracy.  South Africa today has constitution that enshrines the spirit of Ubuntu through its recognition of a range of substantive human rights due to Mandela’s transformative leadership.

Nelson Mandela’s autobiography bears the appropriate title The Long Walk to Freedom.  As we remember the man it is important that we do not forget that Mandela’s walk was not an easy one.  Not everyone who walked with Mandela lived to see his release from prison and his rise to lead the Rainbow Nation through a democratic transition.  Humanity has not yet arrived at the desired destination of a world where human rights and fundamental freedoms are respected and realized.

As a member of the legal profession and a professor of law I have been reflecting on the role of law in the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela since his death last week.  Multiple meanings will be given to his life.  It is important to resist the impetus to sanitize Mandela and simplify the complex history of South Africa’s struggle.  The Rainbow Nation remains a crucible for understanding human rights and transformation.

On this International Human Rights Day in particular, I am deeply appreciative of the work of freedom fighters and human rights defenders. The societal transformations they created allowed me to create a life that could not have been imagined by those who were enslaved and suffered oppression based on the color of their skin.  Unfortunately, I never had the privilege of meeting the man the world has gathered to remember but his life’s work held significant meaning for me and became for me formative.  As a child, I followed developments in South Africa with great interest.  I am a daughter of the African diaspora. I am the descendant of slaves.  I am the product of parents who attended segregated schools and came of age under the brutal enforcement of Jim Crow laws in Louisiana. My mother’s body bore the scars from a beating she suffered after playing on the wrong (white only) playground. So, I deeply identified with the struggle in South Africa as one to oppose laws designed to keep people separate and black people subordinate.  I saw parallel paths towards justice and equality. Blacks in the US refused to be relegated to the back of buses.  Blacks in South Africa resisted removal to Bantustans.  Many people suffered and sacrificed in the pursuit of freedom.  My mother was among the many people who resisted racist laws.  For her defiance she sat in a Louisiana jail cell.  I now stand at the front of a law school classroom.  I owe a debt.  I try my best to pay it forward.

I first visited South Africa in 1994 hosted by the Center for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) as a law student. It was shortly after the first democratic elections and the nation was euphoric.  A man once a prisoner had become the President and a new constitution was under negotiation. Later, I returned to South Africa as a lawyer with Human Rights Watch. Today, I encourage my students to visit South Africa. I teach them about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation process and the country’s constitution.  We study of the process of learning to live together.

The Path to Peaceful Transition: From Arms to Education and Ubuntu 

Today Mandela is credited for his capacity for forgiveness but there was a time he was considered a terrorist. He was a lawyer but he was not law abiding. He engaged in unlawful acts. He was did not abide by laws that were unjust and unfair.  Instead, he sought the freedoms set forth in the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress. For his resistance to the racist rule of the Apartheid government and his failure to respect its laws he was imprisoned.

How is it that a condemned man who was labeled a terrorist came to transition a nation to democracy and avoid descent into violent conflict? How did he achieve what was previously perceived to be impossible?

I believe the answer lies in transformation. Mandela transformed. He somehow learned how to become larger than the system of oppression that imprisoned him for 27 years.  Mandela also transformed others.  He called upon his comrades to put down their guns. Instead of rallying around the cries of “One Boer, One Bullet” or “One Settler, One Bullet” Mandela called for Ubutu.

Many revolutionary movements resort to violence when grievances are not addressed and harms are not redressed.  When all other avenues for access to justice are foreclosed; when people cannot turn to courts of law and expect access to justice; when laws are unjust and unfair or just racist; when people are discriminated against and denied dignity—the result often is violent conflict. It would not have been unreasonable to expect many in South Africa to want to take up arms to engage in violence and to seek vengeance for the suffering they experienced.

Contrary to popular belief, Mandela did not put down all weapons to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy.  Rather he picked up a different one.  Mandela is credited with having said: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Mandela’s life is a lesson in Ubutu. He taught that: “No one is born hating another person for the color of his skin or his background or religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate they can be taught to love for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

South Africa has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Article 29 of the Convention provides that a primary aim of education is to support the development of children who can grow to become adults capable of living a “responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of the sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin.”  The spirit of understanding of which the Convention speaks is consistent with the intention of Ubutu.

Freedom and the Future Possible: Lessons in the Legacy

Mandela admonished us all to appreciate that: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” I have been contemplating the consequences of our choices as Americans for those people around the world who are not free, people who are demanding dignity and seeking liberty.  Do the international policies we advance truly serve to promote justice or do they impede progress? Does the way in which we exert our power and exercise our choices serve to respect human rights?

Mandela was a great leader.  Not everyone followed. Several opposed his liberation struggle and placed obstacles in his path.  Some world leaders took policy positions that proved to make Mandela’s walk longer.  He was labeled a terrorist by our government.  I find myself wondering whether under present political conditions we would have obliterated Mandela early in his struggle, as our current practice appears to be the use of drones to drop bombs on suspected terrorists. When Mandela’s government passed a law that could have allowed greater access to affordable medicines to combat South Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic through the use of compulsory licenses on patented pharmaceuticals, it was labeled an intellectual property pirate and earned a place on our list for trade sanctions.

The lesson I draw from Mandela’s life is that separation remains the true common enemy of humanity.  I have been contemplating Mandela’s capacity for creating unity and I cannot help but reflect on how divided the world’s leaders seem to be when it comes to resolving the important issues of our time.  Precisely at a time when collective action and unifying leadership is more essential than ever to address climate change and the other pressing problems facing the world we remain too far apart.  Mandela stepped down from his Presidency after only one term.  His leadership was not about possessing power rather it was about empowering people. He stepped down perhaps because he expected all of us to step up.

May Madiba rest in peace and may the rest of us have the courage to live his legacy and continue on the walk towards freedom.  As Mandela is laid to rest, we must not forget that “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”–gFrc


Erika R. George is a Professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law and Co-Director of Center for Global Justice