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Matthew Sanders: Nelson Mandela’s goodness touched a human soul at Harvard

SHARE Matthew Sanders: Nelson Mandela’s goodness touched a human soul at Harvard

As a young boy, I was horrified by the reports and images of the vicious conflict of apartheid. The scenes were jarringly foreign to my peaceful upbringing in rural North America.

The struggle in South Africa reflected a running global battle between proponents of self-governance and democracy and totalitarians and communists. I followed with deep interest and passion the worldwide human struggle for liberty and justice but never imagined I would have a brief encounter with one of history's great leaders years later.

This week the world lauds the legacy of Nelson Mandela. Among the many reasons for honoring him must be that we have so few accounts of peaceful transfer of power. Most of history's pages drip with the blood of brutal combat, both between traditional powers and amid wrenching revolutionary uprisings. Africa's own chronicle of conflict includes tribal warfare, enslavement, colonial rule and overthrow, resource rivalries and religious warfare. Most predicted that the overthrow of apartheid would involve terrible human cost.

Enter Nelson Mandela, a Xhosa boy moved by the suffering and injustice in his society. As a young man with unique gifts, he sought a voice amid an insurgency, leading to 27 years of imprisonment. Yet instead of leading his land in armed warfare, he emerged as a type of real-life Jean Valjean. He emerged as a man of reason, reconciliation and mercy, destined to lead his country and his people to a new era of freedom and peace few imagined.

Historians and detractors are quick to point out flaws in any person of great accomplishment. Alas, finding errors in any human is no great task nor great intellectual accomplishment. Indeed, the historical record shows Mandela made many mistakes.

However, with a brief personal experience Nelson Mandela cemented in my soul the greatness of his.

While a graduate student at Harvard in September 1998, I learned Mandela would be coming to the university to be the 74th recipient of an honorary degree. Other awardees from history included Benjamin Franklin, Alexis de Tocqueville, Mother Teresa and Benazir Bhutto. But he was to receive his doctor of laws in a special convocation, joining George Washington and Winston Churchill and 10 others in a separate ceremony from the traditional commencement exercises.

Before making my way to the green that September day, I had read much of Mandela's writings and the history surrounding his "long walk to freedom." I awaited with anticipation, along with thousands of others, finding it remarkable to be there at that moment, far from the rolling hills of my Idaho home. In no way did I expect what happened next.

When Mandela strode onto the stage, I recall him first greeting invited guests, university leaders and dignitaries. Then he turned, smiled and waved, and a powerful feeling washed over me. I can only describe it as a presence of great virtue. It was as though I felt a wave of goodness rush past me. I recall being shocked by the experience.

After some singing and introduction, Mandela stood and spoke. Among the many things he said that day, he humbly explained, "I know that through this award you are not so much recognizing any individual achievement, but are rather paying tribute to the struggles and achievements of the South African people as a whole."

He went on to say, "If in these latter years of a life lived in pursuit of equality, we can at last look upon our own country as one in which citizens, regardless of race, gender or creed, share equal political rights and opportunities for development, we do so with great gratitude towards the millions upon millions all around the world who materially and morally supported our struggle for freedom and justice."

It is my belief that all human beings possess a soul and that we have the ability to touch one another in ways beyond the tangible. I also believe in a divine creator who has our best interests at heart and sustains our noblest aims, among which is the innate human striving for liberty. I furthermore believe that as we choose goodness over evil, our individual ability to influence others for good grows.

In my youth I was pained by the struggle of Mandela's people, half a world away. But on a fall day in Harvard Yard, his soul touched mine — no doubt through the virtue of a life of choosing good over evil. I left inspired to be better.

So in all the sincerity of my soul I say thank you to Mandiba, the great man.

Matthew studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and government at Harvard University. He workes for Deseret Digital Media as GM of Publisher Solutions. msanders@deseretnews.com or @Sanders_Matt