President Obama traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia this week for the Group of 20 summit.
The meeting of world leaders ostensibly centers on global economic matters. But the conflict in Syria cast a shadow over it as Congress weighs whether to give Obama what he wants; authorization to punish Syria, to launch military strikes against Damascus for its alleged use of chemical weapons.
Lawmakers are expected to vote next week. It’s an important decision and journalists like me are focused on it. But while I monitor the debate in Washington, D.C., my mind can’t help but drift to South Africa, where Nelson Mandela seems to be in the final days of his exceptional life.
When I arrived at work in the wee hours of last Saturday morning, the BBC was reporting that the 95-year-old Mandela was finally being allowed to return home from the hospital.
The Beeb was wrong.
But only about the timing.
Doctors sent Mandela home the next day.
Mandela had been in a hospital in Pretoria since June, suffering from what the government said was a recurring lung infection, thought to be a result of his 27-year imprisonment.
I first became aware of Mandela while he was still a prisoner of South Africa’s apartheid government and I was just emerging from the sheltered existence of college. It happened during an outdoor concert in downtown Charleston, West Virginia, my hometown. Mountain Stage, a radio show produced by my former employer, West Virginia Public Radio, played host to South African trumpet legend Hugh Masekela. He and his band performed “Bring Him Back Home.”
Maybe it was the depth of feeling the song conveyed, but Masekela’s performance of it caught my attention and resonates with me even today. Only later did I find out that it was an anthem for the movement to free Mandela.
From that time on, I’ve followed Mandela’s activities with great zeal. The man once considered a terrorist by critics became South Africa’s first black president and he counts the Nobel Peace Prize among his many laurels. But I somehow never got around to reading a biography.
A few weeks ago I downloaded the audio version of the book by John Carlin that tells the story of how Mandela came to reject armed struggle and eventually use the Afrikaner obsession with rugby to give black and white South Africans something to rally around during his presidency.
With Mandela’s public support, the Springboks, a symbol of white South Africa, went on to win the 1995 Rugby World Cup.
The book was made into a movie released in 2009 and today it’s better known by its Hollywood name, “Invictus,” taken from the 19th century poem that inspired Mandela during his incarceration. It’s read out loud at the end.
Much like the conflict in Syria and the wider Middle East, the problems in South Africa seemed intractable. But Mandela transcended them and emerged as a beloved figure around the world.
Would South Africa have gone from global pariah to take its place among nations without Mandela?
That’s an impossible question to answer.
But I’m now making my 15-year-old son read Carlin’s book, if only because people like Mandela have lessons to teach long after they are no longer able to participate in public life.