12.07.13 Madiba: Our loss

Yesterday, Freedom House (the remarkable human rights organization I work for) published comments from our South Africa staff. Here is my letter back to them.

To My South Africa Colleagues:

Thanks for sharing your words with us. You know better than any of us here can how much Nelson Mandela meant to your country. You may not know how much he meant to many of us.

I grew up in the US Civil Rights Movement. But Martin Luther King was murdered when I was only eight years old. His memory shines, but Madiba was much more real, more present for me. Like some of you, even though I knew he would die soon, when I heard the news yesterday, I burst into tears.

The New York Times got it wrong today, with the headline “Mandela’s Death Leaves South Africa Without Its Moral Center.” No, his death leaves humanity without its moral center. Surely, Mandela stood astride your nation and its struggle, but he actually belongs to all of us. His vision and leadership gave him a stature like few people in history (perhaps Gandhi had equivalent stature).

We must all now yearn for statesmen and –women who can truly lead us to justice, not in the petty ways so many lesser politicians do, but with the transcendence that is now lost. May humanity have another such beacon soon!

My heart goes out to all of you.


I mentioned Gandhi in my letter. Who are the other visionary leaders who have transformed human history in such a positive way? Conservatives will cite Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. But we must never forget how  they both actively opposed the sanctions movement (the latter vetoed a sanctions bill in 1985 and launched in his fall 1980 campaign for president in Philadelphia, MS, the infamous site of 1964 civil rights murders). Most Americans will rightly cite Martin Luther King, Jr.; however, his profound influence was largely limited to our nation.

When we scan the globe in search of visionary leadership, we come up empty. Surely South Africa’s subsequent leaders insult Mandiba’s memory: Thabo Mbeki, the petty squabbler whose most significant legacy is his perpetration of a hoax that AIDS was an imperialist plot and set back the cause of fighting it by a generation and Jakob Zuma, the serial rapist turned president.

As for US leaders, Barak Obama seems to disappear into an insignificance when the mind’s eye beholds him next to Mandela. Our latter day civil rights leaders? Sharpton and Jackson in comparison to King and Nelson? Please!

Our country and world are devastated by injustice, venal conflicts, and oppression. We desperately need visionaries who can stand above momentary self-interest, petty profit, and zero-sum vengeance, leading us – all of us – to a better place. I am not a religious man, but if I were, that would be my prayer this holiday season.

©2013 Keith Berner

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