By Bankole Thompson
Like the instructive reminder in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” that despite the whirlwind of changes facing our time we must always seize the day, Nelson Mandela’s demise five years ago, marked the death of democracy’s greatest salesman of the 20th century.
If he were alive, Mandela would have turned 100 on July 18. The anniversary of his birth calls on us to articulate a new vision for a new generation in the battle against inequality.
Think about it.
Few people have had a tremendous impact on millions around the world like Nelson Mandela.
Few people have left an indelible mark on the conscience of the world and changed the course of history like the anti-apartheid leader.
Few people have embraced their enemies much like Madiba.
Former president Barack Obama sought to convey that message Tuesday, July 17, in South Africa, where delivered the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture on the eve of Mandela’s 100th anniversary birth.
“It was in service of this long walk towards freedom and justice and equal opportunity that Nelson Mandela devoted his life,” Obama said. “At the outset, his struggle was particular to this place, to his homeland – a fight to end apartheid, a fight to ensure lasting political and social and economic equality for its disenfranchised non-white citizens.”
Obama during the lecture which was regarded as his first major speech since leaving office, explained how Mandela’s human rights crusade resonated globally with movements for social justice.
“But through his sacrifice and unwavering leadership and, perhaps most of all, through his moral example, Mandela and the movement he led would come to signify something larger,” Obama said. “He came to embody the universal aspirations of dispossessed people all around the world, their hopes for a better life, the possibility of a moral transformation in the conduct of human affairs.”
Mandela’s unfinished business is the war he waged against economic inequality. Today that crisis is not only a prominent feature in South African life, but also evident in other parts of the world including Detroit, which was among the first places Mandela visited after his release from prison.
Like Mandela’s South Africa, Detroit is also a reminder of the conflicts of the past, the cultural struggles of the present, and the drive for economic empowerment in a city where many feel left behind.
Detroit is the largest poverty center for any major American city according to the 2016 Census. Mandela would be rightfully concerned about how the cruelty of poverty has confined a significant number of people in this city to a state of insecurity.
Like Detroit, South Africa too has political freedom. But both are lacking in economic opportunities for the masses of people who are waiting for sound policies in government to translate to well-paying jobs.
Speaking in 2005 at London’s Trafalgar Square at the Make Poverty History rally Mandela said, “Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times — times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation — that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.”
Mandela further stated, “Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the action of human beings.”
Then he warned: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
For us in Detroit, understanding Mandela’s legacy means remaining steadfast in the quest to reduce inequality and create more equity.
From our own legacy to the realization of Mandela’s impact, the common aspirations of most Detroiters is to see their leaders become champions of equality.
Given the role Detroit played as part of Mandela’s global legacy for being involved in the campaigns for his release, it is a strong reminder of the need to continue the push to affirm the dignity of all Detroiters who feel trapped in the prison of poverty.
“So on Madiba’s 100th birthday, we now stand at a crossroads – a moment in time at which two very different visions of humanity’s future compete for the hearts and the minds of citizens around the world. Two different stories, two different narratives about who we are and who we should be. How should we respond?,” Obama said in his lecture about Mandela.
Bankole Thompson is the chair of the Academy of Fellows and Editor-in-Chief of The PuLSE Institute, an independent anti-poverty think tank based in Detroit.