A Message from WPDI CEO Forest Whitaker
July 18, 2020 – The life and lessons of Nelson Mandela offer us many topics on which to reflect year after year. However, in 2020, the lessons we can learn resound even more clearly. Ours is a time of crisis: the planet has been struck by a global virus, which carries unprecedented stealth and scope. This is the kind of plague that clearly reveals our collective weaknesses and failures as a society. In my home country of the United States, COVID-19 has infected and affected many more people than anywhere else in the world. African Americans have been bearing the brunt of the pandemic there, because that population has the narrowest access to economic opportunities and health services within our nation. If one were to read a list of the inequalities suffered by African Americans, it would be just as long as the history of America itself. African Americans were present as the Founding Fathers proclaimed that “all men are created equal.” This truth did not apply to the many men and women of color who were enslaved, but it remains a truth nonetheless. It is a truth that cannot be tainted by the inequities and violence that our nation’s laws permitted for generations, until the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s started us on a path of equality. It is a truth that also cannot be tainted by the racism that still lurks in so many corners of our society today. Mandela was no fool when he entitled his great book “The Long Walk to Freedom.” He knew very well that when racial discrimination is integrated into the legal framework of a country, as was the case both in the US and in South Africa, it takes time to change things; even once the law has been corrected, one ultimately needs to change hearts in order to truly tame the monstrous beast of racism.
Changes of heart? We may be tempted to question whether this is realistic in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the countless other victims of institutionalized violence who came before him. And, these examples of police brutality are just the tip of the iceberg of discrimination. Going beneath the surface, we recently saw a white woman call the police in an attempt to threaten an African American man who had told her she was breaking the rules of dog handling in Central Park. Fortunately, that interaction didn’t lead to any physical harm for the man, and made the news all across the world. However, in innumerable occasions, interactions like this don’t make the news, and many do lead to physical harm. Either way, the microaggression results in a person of color being humiliated. When thinking about this, we may be tempted to believe that pleading for a change of heart is a bit naive. After all, violence seems ingrained in the institutions and culture of the United States. But such changes of heart are precisely what Mandela called for. While so many of us are confined to our homes throughout the coronavirus pandemic, we should learn from Mandela’s insights and reflections during his own lengthy period of confinement.
When we celebrate Mandela, we mostly focus on the leader who stood against apartheid, a system that separated black people from white people and subjected them to abject brutality. Mandela didn’t agree with the common belief in South Africa that white people were at war with black people, and today, some people may only focus on what Mandela did in public as an armed resistor. But, he eventually transitioned to a different approach, and became a nonviolent activist. Still, for 27 years, Mandela lived in a cell, often in solitary confinement. There, he never idled and never ceased to learn and grow. He often read, and even learned Afrikaans, the language of the “enemy.” In doing so, Mandela thought he could understand his oppressors – and see into their hearts.
A passage from “The Long Walk to Freedom” provides an illuminating lesson on the human capacity to see into those hearts. It is about Colonel Badenhorst, who was probably the worst commanding officer that Mandela and his comrades had to suffer throughout their years at Robben Island. Life within the prison deteriorated as soon as he arrived. No more books and other privileges; more surprise searches; more random beatings. At some point, Mandela, that beacon of self-control and stoic fortitude, confesses to have felt anger at the man. The anger abated – but he felt that anger, as would any human subjected to humiliation – an anger that is bound to soar when uniformed men can strip you naked without any privacy, simply because you were born with dark skin. Life was no life under this self-righteous, racist Badenhorst. So, Mandela and his peers fought back: they went on a hunger strike and used outside contacts to have the man eventually removed from the Island. Upon his departure, Mandela was called to his office. Badenhorst said he was leaving the island and added “I just want to wish you people good luck.” Mandela was taken by surprise, and said: “Badenhorst had perhaps been the most callous and barbaric commanding officer we had had on Robben Island. But that day, he had revealed that there was another side to his nature, a side that had been obscured but that still existed. It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and that if their hearts are touched, they can change. Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behaviour.”
How Mandela chooses to describe this prison officer is fascinating. He shows that while Badenhorst is callous and barbaric, it’s possible for people to have a change of heart, which can be brought about through both resistance and nonviolence. What Mandela probably realized on this day is that as a social system, racism can only be fought effectively if we’re able to create a breeding ground for similar changes of heart. A racist system is not just about structures of discrimination and traditions of inequality. It is about the sense of superiority within the oppressor, and the pained reactions of the oppressed. Racism is learned, and those emotions do not transform as quickly as a legal system that may outlaw it. Those feelings have an inertia that begins in the atmosphere and environment of our upbringing: intonations, glances, and gestures that shape each child’s emotional intelligence and attitudes. This is why Mandela always remained professional with his guards even as he voiced his disagreement with their practices. His strategic objective was to educate his opponent – not to destroy him.
Such an approach is certainly difficult for anyone who lives in a country where entire groups of people are oppressed based on their race, religion, or gender. But as a nonviolent activist, Mandela posits that we must acknowledge that racist oppressors are still people. And, all people have a heart, though some may be misguided. In the right circumstances, he or she has the ability to choose to behave decently. Someone may reach that heart, and in touching it, even transform it. Considering Mandela’s lesson within the context of the United States, I believe that alongside the voices and messages of those who are bravely protesting, we must create a breeding ground that allows for all voices to be heard. This includes the voices of police officers who denounce racism and strive to obtain decency within a system that is clearly broken. Much as Mandela learned Afrikaans many years ago to understand the words and heart of his oppressor, we must listen to those who are a part of an oppressive system today, so that we can understand why that system has remained unchecked for so long. I’ve been hopeful when I’ve seen images of law enforcement taking a knee alongside protestors who are marching in an attempt to bring about racial equality. It’s difficult to imagine the kind of courage it takes to publicly denounce the very broken system of which you are a part, and acknowledge that you are a piece of the problem. They embody much of what leaders like Gandhi, MLK, and Mandela espoused: refusing to let a system of oppression make you complicit to its built-in brutality. Collectively, these officers remind us even within a system that is riddled with inequities, some brave people do exist. Individually, these officers can also speak to the hearts of their colleagues whose souls remain trapped in the cogs of the racist system that we have inherited from the past. In turn, these are conversations that can spread to all corners of our society. We need our culture to free itself from its demons and to confine them to history books and museums. This path is not easy – it takes a long walk indeed. But, if I think back to Mandela, we are moving in the right direction. The walk has started, and is manifest in the Black Lives Matter movement, which inherits its inspiration from a long tradition of nonviolent resistance against oppression and racism.
Behind Black Lives Matter is the same kind of awareness that Mandela aptly expresses for us in his “Badenhorst moment.” Indeed, Mandela realized that his opponent was not the white person in front of him but the system that was rewarding their violence against black people. A system that promotes violence will endure if those who follow it are willing to commit brutal acts. But, it will only endure if its designated victims are also willing to accept violence perpetrated against them. This war isn’t between blacks and whites; it’s between injustice and equality. In order to win that equality, there must be a different way for victims to stand up and fight back. The best approach is to fight the core emotions and beliefs behind unjust systems and to reach out to everyone nonviolently, with openness – and, we must do so relentlessly. From his prison cell, Mandela both hardened his resolve and opened his mind. Sixty years ago, being confined could not break his hopes at a post-racial society. Today, let us allow our own version of that confinement to be a time when we get closer to building and attaining our own dream of equality.