I was in a synagogue in New York City at an event by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ) when we got word that Nelson Mandela had passed away. The moment of silence was really, really silent, as I stood next to Ai-jen Poo recalling the teenager I was when I first heard of apartheid in South Africa. It was a fitting place to be. JFREJ’s founding action was to raise $50,000 for the anti-apartheid struggle at a time when many Jews refused to acknowledge Mandela, because he had once shaken hands with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat.
The reimaging of Mandela had already begun, but his actual death will accelerate it. People who don’t wish to talk about race will forget his critiques of white supremacy and racial hierarchy. Capitalists will forget his condemnation of corporate exploitation, and his image will appear on ads for clothing, computers or some other crap. Politicians will forget that he led the writing of a constitution that recognizes the rights of all, including LGBT people. Others will forget the truth part of Truth and Reconciliation and use his words, as they do King’s, to shut down racial justice activists of the future.
But we remember, those generations of us who took action to support Mandela’s movement. Mandela taught us how to hold complex relationships in the light of a vision so broad, so inclusive, so loving that it illuminated everything. He taught us that there are a lot of ways to fight, that we can use the full range of tactics, and that we can change them not just as conditions change, but also as we change. He taught us that making up requires being sorry to begin with, that forgiveness and reconciliation are related but not the same, and that both things are good to pursue, especially in moments of triumph.
Last night, I talked about how, as a movement, we tend to celebrate victory. Yet most of us spend much more time failing than we do anything else. We are after all the front line of a war to change everything, including the world’s dominant assumptions of what it means to be a good human being living with other human beings. We will fail often, as Mandela himself did. Even after we win, there is backslide and backlash that scrubs the varnish off our victories with the hard realities of implementation. I quoted Samuel Becket, who told us it didn’t matter if we failed, we could try again, “fail again, fail better.” Mandela taught us even more than that: to fail epically, fail justly, fail lovingly, so that, in time, we can succeed.