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.
The speeches Mandela gave in the critical transition period from apartheid oppression to multiracial democracy were laced with homages to Paine—especially the pamphleteer’s Common Sense promise: “We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand.”
When Mandela was inaugurated as his country’s president, he announced that South Africa was striving not merely for the birth of a new nation but “for the birth of a new world.”
Mandela served one term and then stepped down, refusing—as George Washington had in the early years of the American experiment—to cling to power that the people had willingly given him. Speaking on Sunday in South Africa, where vigils were being kept for an ailing Mandela, President Obama said the South African leader “showed us that one man’s courage can move the world.”
Inspiration is passed across borders and oceans, across generations and centuries. There is an arc of history. It was bent toward justice by Paine in the eighteenth century. It has been bent toward justice by Mandela in our time. And one of the gifts Mandela has given to America, one of the gifts he continues to give this country and the world, is a reminder of our revolutionary roots and our highest aspirations.
In arguing that Britain’s colonial subjects should engage in the bold and dangerous work of seeking independence, Paine wrote: “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind. Many circumstances hath, and will arise, which are not local, but universal, and through which the principles of all lovers of mankind are affected, and in the event of which, their affections are interested. The laying a country desolate with fire and sword, declaring war against the natural rights of all mankind, and extirpating the defenders thereof from the face of the Earth, is the concern of every man to whom nature hath given the power of feeling; of which class, regardless of party censure, is the AUTHOR.”
It was Mandela who, two centuries later, became the face of a broad anti-apartheid movement that would speak the same language, and imagine the same role, for an African nation.
“We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born,” Mandela declared in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. “This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.”
Every nation is engaged in an endless process of defining itself. Great thinkers, great leaders ask their nations to go further. They believe—as Paine did—that a country might seek “to begin the world over again,” and they imagine—as Mandela has—that their nation might inspire and inform “the birth of a new world.”
John Nichols is the author, with Robert W. McChesney, of Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex Is Destroying America (Nation Books). Thomas E. Patterson, the Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University, says: “As Nichols and McChesney’s new book shows, the robber barons of the late nineteenth century were pikers compared with today’s moneyed interests. They have hijacked our elections at all levels, and nothing short of the sweeping reforms called for in Dollarocracy can fix the problem. The book is a must read for anyone who cares about the integrity of our democratic system.”