Share story

It feels good to have been on the right side of history. I could hear that in the words of people in news stories about the passing of Nelson Mandela, especially those who contributed something, however small, to the fall of apartheid.

His death has been an occasion for looking back at the struggle he came to represent, and a way of making statements about values we want to claim. That’s good because what’s most useful about remembering heroes is that telling stories about them might inspire us to be better and do better going forward. There is no shortage of struggles in the present. Wouldn’t it be nice to know right now which side is the right side, and to be on it?

My family visited South Africa a decade after Mandela was elected president, and nearly everyone we spoke with talked, and often with pride, about their country’s transformation.

Nearly everyone today sees the fight against apartheid as just, but that wasn’t always how it was viewed as it played out. People we call freedom fighters were called terrorists by many at the time, and even some people who acknowledged change should happen felt the movement was being unreasonable in its haste. That sounds familiar, because the pattern is repeated in some form in nearly every significant struggle — emancipation, women’s suffrage, marriage equality.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

So many stories about his death, and so many words of praise, begin with Mandela’s willingness to forgive, the value of which is a major lesson we take from him. But he was also a fighter (literally and figuratively), a stubborn and determined man. Those qualities were essential to success, too. And there is no doubt that some of the qualities that made him an effective leader were mirrored by shortcomings.

Another lesson from his life is that there was nothing perfect about the people who fought for freedom in South Africa — not even Mandela. That matters because it affects how we judge movements in the present, often by looking for faults in the people involved with those movements rather than at the larger picture of what is at stake. The character, words and actions of movement leaders absolutely matter, but only as one part of judging the causes they espouse.

How many arguments against health-care reform are rooted in dislike of the architect of the current plan rather than in the plan itself?

Who would deny Thomas Jefferson’s passion for freedom? His commitment to freedom was flawed by his enslavement of men, women and children, but his arguments for freedom were worth embracing and expanding beyond his own vision.

How do you know in the moment which causes history will smile on? Maybe it’s not possible in every instance, but on matters of justice, I ask who has power and how is that power being used?

That’s what students at the University of Washington asked when they pressured the institution to sell its stock in companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. It took years of demonstrations, but in 1986 the board of regents voted 6-3 to sell. The students did what was in their sphere of control, which is enough to feel good about.

Mandela became the primary symbol of the struggle, but he acknowledged many times what should be obvious, that it was never his fight alone, or even that of the South African people. In the 1980s, the struggle drew broad international support, which put economic pressure on the apartheid government. The government freed Mandela in 1990 after he’d spent 27 years in prison, and the next year it repealed its apartheid laws and began working with opposition groups toward democracy.

Mandela’s election to the presidency in 1994 was not the end of the story, but the beginning of the ongoing work of building a just society.

Our country is still a work in progress, too, sharing some of the elements present in South Africa, which is one reason that country’s story has such resonance here (and vice versa). We’ve shared some bad inclinations in the past, but maybe we’ll learn some good things from each other going forward.

When my family visited, we went through the Apartheid Museum in Soweto, where we became so engrossed that we got locked in after the museum closed.

I wrote at the time, “There is history on all the various peoples who make up South Africa, and the exhibits that take you from a time when they mixed together, to segregation, and then to apartheid.”

And, “The exhibit doesn’t ask you to forget, but it does ask you to understand so that you can move forward.”

If you choose to move forward with an understanding of the past, you are more likely to be on the right side of history.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.