During the decades of his imprisonment by South Africa’s apartheid regime, Nelson Mandela read widely and deeply from the historical and philosophical texts of the ages.
Mandela sampled from the global canon. Yet he took a special interest in the record of American revolt against empire.
The events of July 4, 1776, have across the long arc of history captured the imaginations of men and women who would build nations far beyond the borders of the United States. And that was certainly the case with Mandela. When I covered him on his 1990 tour of the United States and during his 1994 campaign for the presidency of South Africa, it quickly became clear that Mandela had developed a rich understanding of the revolutionary history of the United States—and of the individuals and ideas that shaped it.
Mandela has always displayed a high regard for the histories and ideas of nations that dispatched colonial overlords. His speeches and essays on Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru are remarkable documents, as are his reflections on leading figures from the anti-colonial struggles of central Africa and the Caribbean.
Mandela recognized that the United States has a distinct anti-colonial history. And he has often employed that recognition to remind Americans and others of ideals and values that are too frequently forgotten.
In his address to the US Congress twenty-three years ago, Mandela spoke of “the struggle for democracy and human rights, not only in our country, but throughout the world.”
“We could not have made an acquaintance through literature with human giants such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and not been moved to act, as they were moved to act. We could not have heard of and admired John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr. and others,” declared Mandela. “We could not have heard of these and not be moved to act as they were moved to act. We could not have known of your Declaration of Independence and not elected to join in the struggle to guarantee the people’s life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Already engaged with the work of shaping the new South Africa, Mandela delivered this message to the US Congress: “The day may not be far when we will borrow the words of Thomas Jefferson and speak of the will of the South African nation in the exercise of that will by this united nation of black and white people—it must surely be that there will be born a country on the southern tip of Africa which you will be proud to call a friend and an ally because of its contribution to the universal striving toward liberty, human rights, prosperity and peace among the people.”
Like so many who have struggled for democracy over the past two centuries, Mandela has taken his cues not merely from presidents and the crafters of official documents. He has honored Tom Paine, the radical pamphleteer who wrote not just of the specifics of the American experiment but of the prospect that a nation and its people might inspire the world.