I don’t know if you’ve had the nightmare where you’re suddenly reminded that you have an exam tomorrow in a college class you thought you’d dropped and never attended.
I have that one often.
If I were – in that nightmare scenario – confronted by the need to cram for a final exam in the history of South Africa, I’d be sweating bullets and kicking the blankets off my bed.
True, I know a little about the Boer Trek, the Anglo-Zulu War, and the Boer War. I’m somewhat informed about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift – a tiny action, but one brilliantly re-created in the movie, Zulu.
From another movie, I know something about young Mohandas Gandhi’s protest movement against South African pass laws, and the deal he struck with Jan Smuts, South Africa’s prime minister, reforming those laws.
But my knowledge of Nelson Mandela’s career is embarrassingly sketchy. During the period 1990 - 1999 – between Mandela’s release from imprisonment on Robin Island and the end of his presidency – I was neither active in politics nor teaching high school History.
I wasn’t paying attention.
I lived through those historic years, but I largely missed them. Thus, I missed out on the chance to develop an independent perspective in contemporary time – the sort of thing that automatically happens when any reasonably intelligent person follows events, from multiple sources, on a day-by-day basis.
Most of us have considerable knowledge of this sort – personally-constructed views of events through which we lived, in real time, either in person or through the media.
Many of us, for example, have such a view of Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Most Americans followed that disaster pretty closely. Today, not many of us could set out a detailed, accurate timeline of this episode, but most of us could give a short summary of it.
But if, for some reason, we were otherwise engaged at the time – if we were abroad, or studying for a big test, or experiencing a family crisis or personal tragedy – we’d now have little to go on except that most unreliable of information forms, the media retrospective.
Which is exactly what I’m now experiencing in the case of Nelson Mandela. Every public figure who can get to a microphone is heaping praise upon him. And the news media – both the relatively objective sources and those with an axe to grind – are running short, simplified versions of his life and accomplishments.
In Mr. Mandela’s case, these biographical sketches and “tributes” will be more coherent than most. After all, Mr. Mandela was 95 years old and had been in declining health for years.
There was time to prepare.
But these made-for-TV or – radio biographical sketches always seem to be boiled down to a neat conclusion. They give the viewer what many seem to want most from history – a clean, simple, one-sentence assessment. Something we can share around the water cooler, or on Facebook.
A safe, authoritative reply for the child who has heard about Mr. Mandela at school and wants to know what we think or if it’s really true.
Yet, obviously, no hour-long “special report” – wrapped up with a tidy bow – can begin to do justice to a long, public career. Especially not a report pre-packaged to run immediately after the man’s death, when praise is the order of the day.
In time, of course, serious historians – both academics and that special breed of journalists who take the trouble to dig deep – will publish well-documented biographies of Mr. Mandela.
Eventually, there will be histories of South Africa in the late 20th century which place his career in broader perspective against the background of great historical trends.
But those deep, complex, long-range views will almost certainly not be in time for me. Historical perspective takes time. With respect to most things, it’s impossible to get a real grasp of what happened, why it happened, and what it might signify in less than fifty years. Usually, it takes a century or two.
And, as that’s true, I will probably never know much with respect to Mr. Mandela. If I’d paid more attention during the critical years of his career, I’d have my own ideas to start from. If I could live another hundred years – while retaining an active mind – I could read serious, book-length explorations of his life and times.
But as it is, I can only say that I believe he was a man of courage and conviction – and that he seems to have had shrewd judgment, a capacity for compassion, and the ability to conceive and communicate a bold, long-term vision to his people.
Others will say much more. Some with good reason.
But I must apologize. In this case, I simply wasn’t paying sufficient attention.
We’re all guilty of such lapses, but we are always the poorer for them.