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Nelson Mandela, South Carolina, and ‘A better life for all’

Posted: December 20, 2013 9:40 a.m.
Updated: December 23, 2013 5:00 a.m.

“Imagine you’re the head of, say, a big German manufacturing company, and you’re thinking of putting a sizable number of jobs here in South Carolina,” said a South Carolina business leader to me recently. “And then you open up your morning newspaper and see this kind of knucklehead stuff. Is it an absolute deal breaker? Hopefully not. But it certainly doesn’t help.”

The “knucklehead stuff” this businessman was talking about involved two ugly, racially-charged incidents here in the Palmetto State that became international news in the wake of South African President Nelson Mandela’s recent death. And, as is so often the case, the vast majority of South Carolinians -- decent and hard-working, black and white -- were the real victims.

The first ugly incident. When President Mandela’s death was announced, President Obama called on the nation to lower the American flag to half-mast out of respect. Most did, but the sheriff of Pickens County refused and issued a statement as to why. What he said really didn’t matter, though, as the headlines quickly became “SC Sheriff Refused to Lower Flag for Mandela” … or some variation.

The second ugly incident. This time it was more than the actions of a single individual but a vocal minority. Gov. Haley posted an appropriately respectful statement about Mandela’s death on her Facebook page. Unfortunately, the comments in response from many of her Facebook “friends” were shocking and appalling, an unfiltered outpouring of hate and bile -- and it’s clear from some of the other postings on the page that many beyond our state’s borders are reading all of it.

Reuters and other international news outlets picked up these two stories, especially the flag story, and they quickly spread around the globe. In the eyes of the world, every negative stereotype of a racist, backwards South Carolina was again “proved” to be true. Google “Mandela South Carolina” and see for yourself.

But, Google results aside, the real connection between President Mandela and South Carolina has nothing to do with the “knucklehead” incidents above. It is instead the enduring lessons that we in the Palmetto State can take from his life and leadership, as we work to get past our own bloody and brutal history of racial division and oppression.

Part of Mandela’s greatness was that he, unlike a few of our fellow South Carolinians, could rise above the hate and bitterness of the past and focus on a shared hope for the future for everyone. After leaving prison and when running for president, his campaign message was “A better life for all.”

While on the surface this might sound trite, in a society racked by years of bloody conflict, with races pitted against the other, the very notion that there was a common interest and common purpose for everyone was truly radical. Having endured 27 years in prison, no one had suffered more than Mandela, yet he was the first to focus not on recriminations but on a new shared future for all the people of South Africa.

Second, Mandela’s spirit was such that he made these words of hope real for all to see, even his bitterest enemies. He exuded a sincerity and serenity that made his words real. And it was that spirit which made him a global icon of freedom and hope.

I am not so foolish as to think that our state’s history doesn’t matter, that hate and racism are not still alive and well among some in our state -- or that somehow one of our state’s politicians is suddenly going to rise to the level of leadership of a Nelson Mandela.

But there are lessons that we can all learn. To paraphrase New York Times columnist Tom Freidman, Mandela showed that we could transcend our past and not wallow in it; that an aggrieved people can respond to their oppressors such that they surprise them with restraint and generosity.

And, above it all, it was the moral authority of Mandela that made him a unique figure in the modern era.  And he got it from telling the same truth to supporters and opponents alike -- a truth that called us all to our highest hopes and not our lowest fears.

(Phil Noble is a businessman in Charleston and president of the SC New Democrats, an independent reform group founded by former Gov. Richard Riley. His column is provided by the S.C. News Exchange.)

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