“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
Over the past two days, I have listened and watched as people around the world, from journalists and celebrities to presidents and other politicians, remembered and honored the life and work of Nelson Mandela. That's as it should be - Mandela was indeed a hero for the ages, one who both understood the value of peaceful protest and had the courage to recognize the unfortunate necessity of doing more when peaceful protest failed. Jailed for 1/3 of his life for his fight against apartheid, Mandela not only became the greatest leader in his country's history, but a great reconciler, full of forgiveness and hope.
As I watched and listened to the statements of our own U.S. politicians calling Mandela a hero, I have wondered - if Mandela came to this country today, and fought against the oppression of the poor the way he fought to end apartheid, would those same politicians call him a hero or a terrorist?
There was a time, before the fall of apartheid but not so very long ago, when many U.S. politicians called Mandela and his organization, the African National Congress, terrorists. And while they now offer lip service to his incomparable contribution to justice throughout the world, many of today's politicians dishonor his memory by ignoring the very causes for which he fought. They extol Mandela's virtues in broad and glowing terms while turning a blind eye to growing income equality, while slashing poverty supports like SNAP and Legal Services. While poor people are billed thousands of dollars for basic medical services at the ER because they can't afford health insurance or a visit to a regular doctor's office. While the mass incarceration of African-American men creates a permanent new under-caste of the disenfranchised and virtually unemployable. While homelessness is criminalized, and offering food to them is also made a crime. While poor people are victimized by the rise of justice for profit.
The praises are flowing now for Mandela, for what he did in South Africa, but what if he came here, today?