Sunday, December 8, 2013 was a day of reflection upon the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected president of South Africa who died December 5, 2013 at age 95. As I reflect upon the meaning of this extraordinary life, I return again and again to his dignity and to the power this sense of self bestowed upon him, even before the South African people elected him to lead them.

Mandela was born into an African royal family, and he was groomed from an early age to be an advisor to kings. And so he was. He became an advisor to world leaders and rose to be the leader of his country and a moral example to the world. This all came to be because of his unyielding determination to be respected as a human being and not to rest until his people were also respected as free and equal human beings. The goal of the end of apartheid [apart hate] in South Africa was constantly before him.

Since Mandela’s death, I have heard many commentators speak of his dedication to non-violence. They marvel at his willingness to forgive both personally and politically. As a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, some have placed him in the pantheon of heroes and sheroes who dedicated their lives to a cause larger than themselves, who worked diligently for peace. Make no mistake, Mandela deserves this recognition.

At the same time, it is more accurate to place him next to El Hajj Malik el Shabazz (the post Mecca Malcolm X) than to Martin Luther King, Jr. or to Mahatma Gandhi. Mandela was a radical humanist in the mold of Malcolm X. He makes a cameo appearance at the end of Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X reciting Malcolm’s famous declaration:

“We declare our right on this earth to be a man, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being, in this society, on this earth, in this day which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary.”

Mandela was willing to achieve his goal of human dignity for all “by any means necessary.” This included violence against a violent and vicious system and through forgiveness and reconciliation at the moment of transition from an [apart hate] society to a rainbow society where all races are treated equally in custom and in law.

In his autobiography -Long Walk to Freedom – Mandela explains his decision to start a paramilitary arm of the African National Congress. Subjective violence, the violence that we can clearly see as one human being perpetrating harm upon another grows from structural, systemic violence. This is the daily violence of disrespect, the violence that refuses to recognize the human dignity of the Other. He surmised that when every other tactic had failed, that freedom fighters ought to fight the unrelenting violence of [apart hate] with violence. Thus, he was willing to be the tip of the spear. To the leaders of the [apart hate] regime, he was a terrorist.

So, when reflecting upon Mandela, we find ourselves caught in an age-old dilemma: one person’s terrorist in another person’s freedom fighter. In just war theory, a war is only just if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Is an immoral government a legitimate authority? Is the existence, stabilization, and continuance of a vicious system of oppression based on race and held in place by an immoral government a just cause for violence? Is the military apparatus of such a government legitimate force applied by a legitimate authority?

Conversely, is violence perpetrated by nongovernmental actors toward the end of a vicious political system justified? There was a moment in Mandela’s life when he thought that it was. He and other leaders of the ANC were tried and convicted on the charge of sabotage intended to overthrow the government. For 27 years inside of South African prisons, Mandela maintained his human dignity. He treated his jailers with respect, and in turn insisted upon respect from them, not only for himself but for his fellow inmates. He refused to accept offers of his personal release in exchange for his abandonment of the goal of the end of [apart hate]. He knew that he was more than a political prisoner. He learned that he had become a symbol to the world.

February 11, 1990

It was a Sunday morning filled with grief. A young teenage woman, a member of our church, had died suddenly of natural causes. She was beautiful and brilliant with a world of limitless possibilities before her except her heart would not allow it. I was angry with God that morning and running on faith and obedience alone. I was thanking God simply because the Word of God commands thanksgiving in all circumstances. Then I saw the news of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. I saw him walk out of prison holding his wife’s hand. He walked out of prison with a smile, a raised black power fist, and dignity. I watched with a combination of joy and disbelief.

I had studied South African history and followed its politics since my undergraduate days at Northwestern University. I read African literature with the South African poet Dennis Brutus who had also been imprisoned on Robben Island during the time Mandela was imprisoned there. Brutus had worked hard to suspend South Africa from participation in the Olympics and from most other international sports events. His efforts were successful, keeping South Africa out of the Olympics from 1964 to 1991. (

I understood the link between the freedom struggle of African-Americans and that of Africans that goes back to the early days of the Atlantic slave trade. I had studied W.E.B. Du Bois and his Pan African Congresses. I read Marcus Garvey and his Africa for Africans movement. I knew that Malcolm X had been critical of American foreign policy in the Congo. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood the connection and wrote about the zeitgeist toward freedom in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I was aware of the efforts of the Congressional Black Caucus, Randall Robinson, and the TransAfrica organization to pass legislation that would impose economic sanctions against South Africa. I thought that the white minority in South Africa would destroy the country before they consented to equality with black Africans. I was wrong. They relented to global pressure. An international free Mandela and free South Africa movement had prevailed.

A child of the King

When I was a little girl in Sunday School, my teachers told me that I was a child of the King. I was a child of King Jesus. “This works for me,” I thought. I considered the privileges of my princess status. I especially liked the part of the Sermon on the Mount where it says: “Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7) As I grew older, experience taught me that there are many things for which we ask that are not given. We search and do not find. We knock and doors remains shut. As I matured in my spiritual walk, I came to understand that the things I did not receive, the dead ends, and closed doors all worked to my good. I have learned to trust God, who is Divine Love, completely.

I have also learned that this child of the King thing carries with it not only privileges but obligations. It means living a disciplined life according to the teachings of Jesus. The obligation is to love one’s enemies, turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, pray for those who wrong you, and work to overcome evil with good. It is an obligation to maintain my human dignity because I am created in the image and likeness of Divine Love. It is an obligation to care for the least among us because they no less than I are also children of the King.

The African concept of Ubuntu tells us that we earn our humanity according to our righteous relationships. Nelson Mandela – Madiba, an appellation of respect – maintained his dignity and willingly and lovingly shouldered the obligation to work for the dignity of all of humankind. He used the power of dignity to help bring a better world into existence.


Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of and author ofJust Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.

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