The Next Nelson Mandela

We have lost one of the world's passionate defenders of the right to food. ... Mandela understood that a hungry man, woman or child could not be truly free.

— General José 
Graziano da Silva, Director, Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.

By Joe Romano, 
Marketing Manager

nelson mandela 2008As we enter the new year, many of us at GreenStar have resolutions to keep. Perhaps we wish to be more effective or more efficient people than we have been to date. Perhaps, like many, we have feasted through the holiday season and are ready to lose some weight. While we look forward with resolve to a new year, we are usually moved to do better by the events of the last.

In 2013, as the holiday season unfolded, the world mourned the death of Nelson Mandela. We heard a lot about him, but most tellers shied from the full story, which is an important one.

It's possible that you heard about the death of Nelson Mandela, the revolutionary leader of the UmKhonto we Sizwe, an armed radical wing of the African National Congress, or ANC, which was associated with the South African Communist Party. After pleading guilty to 156 separate acts of public violence and terrorism, Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years of his life. While in prison and after his release he openly aligned himself with Fidel Castro in Cuba, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Libya's Muammar Gadhaffi, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, and other dictators.

You more likely heard of the death of the saintly Nelson Mandela, a man who devoted his entire life to justice, equality, humanity, and humanitarian causes. His life was an example of forgiveness and transcendence. Imprisoned by the brutal apartheid government for 27 years, upon his release he became the first democratically elected president of South Africa, transforming a nation known for oppressive racism and civil strife into a country that Archbishop Desmond Tutu rightly called a "rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."

In all the commentary and coverage of the ceremonies commemorating his life and death, very few have tried to reconcile these two Nelson Mandelas. Either they paint him with the rosy colors of tribute or brand him a terrorist.

But there's an important lesson to be learned by putting all of these qualities into one man.

"If you were to ask, was the armed struggle an essential component to the defeat of apartheid, the answer would have to be 'yes.' One that doesn't sit comfortably with the saintly images the media wish to portray,'' said Wayne Dooling, Professor of History at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Mandela had allegiances that some Americans might not understand. That was because they helped him achieve his primary goal, the transformation of his nation through resistance, at a time when few were aligned with his vision, including the United States. Mandela was a freedom fighter. Of course, one person's freedom fighter is another's terrorist. Indeed, Mandela was on the US terrorist watchlist until 2008, fully 14 years after he had become president. "Mandela was not Gandhi," said Dooling. "Once he had committed himself to armed struggle, he did not waver until the onset of political negotiations in 1990." The life of Mandela is easy to reconcile if you recognize that he was a man who simply did what was necessary.

"To him," said Jacob Zuma, South Africa's current president and himself a former militant, "for South Africa to attain peace, the armed struggle was inevitable, but it was a means to an end, not an end in itself." That end was to see his people rise from institutionalized racism, poverty, and hunger. "Freedom is meaningless if people cannot put food in their stomachs, if they can have no shelter, if illiteracy and disease continue to dog them," Nelson Mandela once said.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the ANC government of South Africa, founded by Mandela, studied food insecurity in South Africa and put together a plan to address it. From 1999 to 2008, as a result of these measures, food insecurity was decreased by more than half. According to their survey, "by 2008, the prevalence of food insecurity had decreased in all provinces ... and food insecurity in the Northern Cape had decreased dramatically, from 63 to 14.2 percent."

Closer to home, the USDA reports that in 2012, 21.2 percent of households in America were food insecure or experienced very low food security. 49 million Americans lived in food-insecure households, and African American households are more than twice as likely to be food insecure as white, non-Hispanic households. By Mandela's measure, people who live with food insecurity are not "truly free."

As a new year begins, GreenStar members make many a resolution; we plan to start fresh. We 
examine our ideals, who we are as women and men. We envision our best selves, and we resolve to become better people. Maybe we'll eat better. Or get more exercise. Maybe we'll volunteer more of our time, or become active in our community. We have the luxury of choice because we are free. But what of the institutionalized racism, poverty, and hunger in our communities? What are we willing to do to end them? We're luckier than Mandela was, because for us violence isn't necessary, but we can use his lifelong commitment as a guide to what must be done.

We can all do more to help. GreenStar is dedicated to Food Justice and to social equity through our FLOWER program that makes our food more accessible to community members on public assistance, through our BASICS program, and our new everyday case sales. Our non-profit affiliate, GreenStar Community Projects (GSCP), works tirelessly on Food Justice issues. But there is more we can do. In this case, it truly takes a village.

There are many organizations, like Building Bridges, GSCP, S.T.A.M.P., the Congo Square Market, Gardens 4 Humanity, GIAC, the Multicultural Resource Center, the Center for Transformative Action, Local First Ithaca, the Team Unity project, Whole Community Project, and local food banks and food kitchens working to make our communities work for everyone. Find out what they do and get involved; make a donation of time and money. More important, make a difference.

"What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived," Mandela said. "It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead."

People ask who the next Nelson Mandela will be; why not make it you?

Happy New Year from all of us at GreenStar!

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