December 11, 2013 at 12:45 pm EDT | by Peter Rosenstein
D.C. politicians can learn from Mandela
Nelson Mandela, South Africa, gay news, Washington Blade

Nelson Mandela (Photo by South Africa The Good News; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Nelson Mandela was a hero, but, more than that, a wonderful human being. He is the father of present day South Africa and an inspiration to all those around the world who continue to fight for civil and human rights.

He walked out of prison after 27 years to become president of South Africa and ended apartheid without a civil war. He was a fighter, a politician and a pragmatist. He understood achieving success meant not seeking revenge but rather reconciliation. He learned non-violent resistance from Gandhi and used it as a tactic. He was part of the African National Congress (ANC), which did believe in violence to achieve its goals, and in his youth he didn’t feel it was wrong. It was during his years in prison that he read, thought and understood that violence wasn’t the way to achieve his goals.

Mandela left jail a fully formed leader. His strength radiated from his core; he refused to be consumed by hatred and willingly worked with his enemies to achieve his goals. He even recognized that it was the white business leaders in South Africa who would help him achieve them by making the economy more open to all. He seemed to have no fear moving forward what he knew to be right. His ever-ready smile symbolized hope and warmth and masked an iron will.

The patience and pragmatism of Mandela is something that our politicians in D.C. could learn from. As of today there are five members of the Council running or exploring a run for mayor, challenging the incumbent who is running for a second term. Mandela showed us we can right wrongs and achieve greatness without the malice that so often seems to consume our politicians. Rather than Mandela’s warmth, they often radiate anger. At least one has a well-earned reputation as a bully that neither engenders trust nor respect.

Some of our politicians wear an air of righteousness on their sleeves rather than having accomplishments that would lead others to believe they are righteous. Michelle Rhee was an example of someone in D.C. whose accomplishments often got lost in her desire for self-promotion.

The District of Columbia comprises eight Wards and at least two cities. Our divisions are mostly rich and poor but often get translated into white and black because so many of our poorer residents are black. Add to that the lingering racism that still exists and we have a long way to go to achieve a fair and just society where all our children will be born with an equal opportunity to live their lives to their full potential.

As we move toward our mayoral election, we need to look at the candidates not only for what they say about themselves but for who they really are. How have they spent their lives? Not one of the candidates running is so pure that they should be willing to challenge another candidate to do better without challenging themselves to do the same. They shouldn’t be able to win an election by simply tearing down the opposition. Those candidates who are in office now should have to answer the question of why any new proposal they present in the election wasn’t something they tried to do in their current office. What stymied their efforts and what will change to let them do it now?

A focus of this campaign will be ethics. All candidates will challenge the current mayor over his 2010 campaign and he will need to give the public both an explanation and an apology. But then all the candidates will have to share what they did with their lives before they entered politics. How did they work for those less able to help themselves and how did that work benefit others? Some will have to explain what they did in office to make big money in other jobs. Did they use their influence as elected officials to enrich themselves? How do the principles they have lived by compare to the ones that Nelson Mandela lived his life by?

The Nelson Mandelas of the world come along rarely. But our ability to measure ourselves against him, even knowing we will come up short, gives us the opportunity to work to make ourselves better. We need to elect candidates who will give the voters of the District specifics of what they will do as mayor and show people how those things will give us hope for a better life for ourselves, our children and future generations.

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