The 20th anniversary this week of Nelson Mandela's release from prison gives sufficient reason to ask if we will ever learn from his example.
This is not the easy story line about the man who was imprisoned under apartheid for 27 years, yet became president of South Africa without an embittered heart.
Nor is it the story in which the media are comparing his legacy to the current commotion under President Jacob Zuma, whether it be HIV, the disparity and crime in the townships, or Zuma's now legendary inability to keep his zipper up. Having been to South Africa twice in the last eight months, there is much degradation to be seen. But one must also still remark how amazing that country is, only 16 years out of apartheid. It is hard for the United States to throw stones since it took a full century after ending slavery to establish civil rights laws for African Americans.
No, the Mandela we should be thinking about here in the United States is the one whose prescience remains unanswered by us.
When Mandela came to Harvard University in 1998 to receive an honorary degree, he said, "The current world financial crisis also starkly reminds us that many of the concepts that guided our sense of how the world and its affairs are best ordered, have suddenly been shown to be wanting.'' He noted how economic theorists went "unchallenged in the day-to-day operations of a system that operated in the interests of the powerful.''
We sure learned a lot in the decade since, didn't we? Not only are we back to hearing about millions in cash and stock bonuses to the heads of taxpayer-bailed-out banks, it appears that someone got to President Obama to tone down his populist outrage.
As the Democratic nominee for president in 2008, Obama said, "It would be unacceptable for executives of these institutions to earn a windfall at a time when the US Treasury has taken unprecedented steps to rescue these companies with taxpayer resources.'' Just last month, he was using "fat cat'' rhetoric to criticize a system "that makes a few people obscene amounts of money but doesn't add value to the economy.''
But this week, Obama told Bloomberg Business Week that he does not "begrudge'' the $9 million in stock bonuses to Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and the $17 million bonus to JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon. Obama said the bonuses indeed represented an "extraordinary amount of money'' to the average person but then brushed it off by adding "there are some baseball players who are making more than that and don't get to the World Series either, so I'm shocked by that as well . . . I know both those guys; they are very savvy businessmen.''
Obama needs to review the part of Mandela's Harvard speech that said the world financial crisis calls for a "fundamental rethinking and reconceptualization.'' The rest of us can revisit the part of the speech where Mandela said, "The greatest single challenge facing our globalized world is to combat and eradicate its disparities . . . we constantly need to remind ourselves that the freedoms which democracy brings will remain empty shells if they are not accompanied by real and tangible improvements in the material lives of the millions of ordinary citizens of those countries.''
We did not learn much from that, either. While the media feasts on the problems of South Africa, which has the second-highest income disparities in the world according to the CIA Factbook, we are not setting much of an example, despite our wealth and even after we put an African American in the White House. The income inequality of the United States is statistically worse than China, Nigeria, and Nicaragua.
It is the 20th anniversary of the freedom of Nelson Mandela. But the evidence remains scant that we are serious about his dream of economic freedom for all.