Nelson Mandela, in his address to Congress on Tuesday, reminded us all of the power of American ideals to transform the world. In the process he may have gotten this country to reflect on a painful subject--racism here.
He saluted the lawmakers for signaling U.S. moral disapproval of apartheid and driving home that important message with economic sanctions imposed at a time when then-President Reagan was cozying up to South Africa’s increasingly oppressive white minority regime.
Mandela also praised the American philosophy of Thomas Jefferson for providing a blueprint for a united, democratic and nonracial South Africa. Mandela said: “We could not have known of your Declaration of Independence and not elected to join in the struggle to guarantee the people’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.”
On behalf of millions of black South Africans, who “continue to bleed and suffer,” Mandela demanded the ballot without regard to race, color, creed or sex.
On behalf of impoverished people who are denied the riches of their opulent land, he envisioned a strong and growing economy that would provide food, houses, education and health services in equitable measure.
On behalf of black children crippled by legal restrictions based on color, he insisted on the transformation of a bitterly divided society “into an oasis of good race relations where the black shall to the white be sister and brother, a fellow South African, an equal human being, both citizens of the world.” He also envisioned a government founded on a democratic constitution, the rule of law and a bill of rights enforced by an independent judiciary that would guarantee freedom and justice for all.
Mandela’s vision serves as a moral prod that could force this great nation to focus renewed attention on its own problems. We have made so much progress, but we have so much more to do to achieve a total victory over racism not just abroad but at home as well.