Darkness comes early at this time of year. So it was this afternoon, when I learned of the death of Nelson Mandela. I had known that his death would come soon, for while he lived a full and extraordinary life, the man known as Madiba was mortal like the rest of us. Still, the news that he had breathed his last was hard to bear. I wanted to mark the occasion somehow and, without really meaning to, I think I did exactly that.
Since Hanukkah ended last night, there was still a menorah and some unused candles in our living room. Lighting candles has no religious significance for us, but we do it a couple of times a year, all the same. And tonight I was glad of this, for it framed the way that I honored and reflected on this most remarkable life.
I lit a single Hanukkah candle and placed it in the menorah, where the shamash candle normally goes. That single candle immediately lit up my otherwise dark living room, and I watched it as it burned. I realized that Mandela, like that single burning candle, prevented the darkness of apartheid from winning out. The legal system that found Mandela guilty and sentenced him to life behind bars in 1962–several years before I was born–failed to extinguish his flame. And I was more grateful for that than I had previously known.
The form of government in South Africa changed during Mandela’s lifetime, but human nature did not. People are terribly flawed, as I’m sure Mandela knew in a way that none of us ever could. For twenty-seven years, he was denied his freedom by a group of men who held onto power based on nothing more than the color of their skin. The happy accident of their own birth, and the unfortunate nature of Mandela’s–and millions of others–was all that the Afrikaners had. But for them, that was enough.
The system of government that they set up, and then enforced in every brutal way they could think of, was nothing less than darkness: Darkness for Mandela and the other political opponents who did not survive captivity. Darkness for millions who could not live where they wanted to live, or travel about freely, or enjoy a reasonable standard of living. And, while it was probably not clear to them at the time, darkness for those who benefited from the ways of apartheid. By reducing the majority of South Africa’s population to second-class status, the Afrikaners had set the stage for their own demise. It took decades to reach that point, but it eventually had to happen because good always conquers evil, no matter what resources evil may have at its disposal.
I stared into the candle and realized that the forces of light and darkness will continue to exist, now that Madiba’s flame has been snuffed out. People will continue to treat each other in terrible ways, whether it is based on skin color, religious differences, gender identity, or whatever other factors may be available. Domination of one group by another was not unique to Mandela’s time on earth, but the lessons of Mandela–and those who oppressed him–have been well learned, and will never be forgotten. And for that we should all be grateful.