After Nelson Mandela died on Dec. 5, it made me think of a time back in 1990, a few months after he was released from prison. It was one of those indelible events that make the mundane moments of life stand out in relief from everything else.I was camping up in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts. I was completely on my own, miles away from another human being, having built a fire underneath the stars. I had switched on the car radio, because Mandela was scheduled to speak from Yankee Stadium that night. And there I was, surrounded only by the night and the trees, listening to his voice and the sound of thousands of people roaring in joy and hope, all in response to this man who represented something so essential within all of us that words like freedom or justice seem inadequate to describe it.
I’ve thought about that moment a lot over the past two decades. The feeling was one of a strange sort of elation that was completely visceral; a soft tingling within me caused by…what?
Mandela touched a nerve across the globe. This was before he became president, but he had already begun to be a statesman like no other. When he and his comrades went to prison in 1963, they had been handed life sentences. They knew they were going to be in jail for a long time but Mandela said he never believed he would die in prison. He was convinced that history was on his side, on the side of the oppressed. What makes for that kind of hope in the face of such violence and oppression? Whatever it is, it’s what Mandela meant to so many of us. And let’s make no mistake. The millions of people that cling to Mandela’s kind of hope are the oppressed, those deprived of justice, the poor, the working classes, those maltreated for their race, gender or sexual preference. No, we may not have experienced the horrible excesses of apartheid, but people in the labor movement are on the same side of the struggle that Mandela stood on.
The irony, of course, is seeing the powerful leaders of the world giving accolades to Mandela upon his death, most of whom represent states and governments who wanted to see him stay in prison, not the least of which was the United States. But Mandela’s powerful stature as the icon of hope and the struggle against oppression demanded that even those who would never stand for such a person today, must honor him. They must honor him because the people of earth demand it.
I have spent most of my years as an activist in the labor movement watching its decline. I have seen courageous working men and women become activists in their unions to fight the return of the cruelties of a laissez-faire capitalism that we thought we had left behind in the 19th century, only to see it triumph in an appalling takeover of our democratic institutions. Corporations are given the rights of people, while working people are denied their rights, their livelihood and their dignity at the hands of Wall Street’s minions. The sort of travesties we see today – the decimation of union rights, the elevation of corporate money in election campaigns, the legions of homeless in the streets because the real estate industry has virtually no regulation and has been left to the profiteers, the oil and gas interests trampling over any effort to stop the runaway devastation of the planet’s very climate – all of these travesties echo the darkness that Mandela faced when issued a life sentence under the horrible apartheid government of South Africa.
But Mandela had hope for a reversal of the movement he was part of. He returned from the depths of a prison cell to become the elected leader of his land. We too can hope for the same sort of reversal. All we need is the commitment. More than any figure of the past 100 years, Mandela gives us the hope that perhaps it’s true that the meek can inherit the earth, even at a time when it seems we are further away from it than ever.
On the very same day that Mandela died, fast food workers walked off their jobs to protest low wages and income inequality in a sort of general strike that took place throughout the country. It was perhaps the first time we’ve seen this sort of universal job action since the Great Depression. You might thank social media and the tools of the information age in part for its success, but you can thank the likes of Nelson Mandela for its inspiration. The great divide of wealth deepens, and the world leaders who stood side by side at Mandela’s funeral do nothing about it. Indeed, they often assist in the further drift toward plutocracy. But the people who organized and took part in the fast food strike (there were up to 1,000 in more than 200 cities) are on a path of hope that could help lead us to a new labor movement where all workers can demand a new social contract, now that the old one is broken. These are the workers who have until now been voiceless, those that the experts said could not be organized.
The fast food strike is getting a lot of assistance from the Service Employees International Union, which evidently is leading much of the strategy and organizing. But the environment that has developed in order to make such a broad job action possible owes itself to a much larger movement, the same that gave rise to Occupy Wall Street and the rebirth in this country of May Day as the new Labor Day. This organizing environment includes an increasing intolerance of the inequality between the classes. Apartheid in South Africa is dead, but what more and more people are becoming aware of is an apartheid between rich and poor. That’s what the fast food strike dramatizes for this country, whose economic divide has increased steadily over the past few decades.
Mandela was branded a terrorist for many years by many of the world’s leaders, including those of the United States. Now, he goes down in history with the same stature of peacemaker that Gandhi achieved. The world’s people never thought of Mandela as a terrorist. Quite the contrary. The powerful of the earth were on a different footing than the rest of us. In the end, the people prevailed.
The injustices that we see all around us seem daunting, to say the least. It’s often hard to be optimistic about the future. That’s when I think back on that moment in the Berkshire Mountains when a radio signal delivered Mandela’s message about how to look at the future. In those woods, I was completely alone. And yet at that moment, I never felt so connected.