March 10, 2014
Almost every country has its independence heroes and freedom fighters but Nelson Mandela was far more than that — he not only laid the foundation stone for an integrated South Africa but did much to build his rainbow nation himself with bricks of many colours. Born during the World War I whose centenary is now only months away, his long life well lived served to dismantle in his country the trench warfare characteristic of that conflict which has since become a metaphor for so much of political life everywhere. In many ways today’s South Africa has a similar mix of economic strengths and social wants to the country he relaunched but it is one nation with all its pros and cons and that is very much Madiba’s achievement. Yet of all his heroic triumphs against adversity, perhaps his biggest victory was over himself — somehow during those long prison years he found the self-criticism to transcend the Soviet-leaning apostle of armed struggle in a hate-ridden country which he had started to become a half-century ago and convince himself that racial co-existence was not only possible but necessary. In a word, a one-man Truth and Reconciliation Commission which has since become a human rights model for the world. Perhaps nobody since Mahatma Gandhi (who effectively began his career in South Africa) has had the moral stature Mandela commands in the world he has now left — proving, in another Madiba miracle, that it is possible to be an unparalleled ethical beacon without an ordered family life.
And yet having earned all the merits for such a personality cult, he proved his greatness yet further by not abusing it — even a second presidential term was too much for a man who shunned freeing his country in order to become its master (unlike many founding figures in Africa and elsewhere). South Africa may not have moved beyond one-party rule flawed by its share of inefficiency and corruption but at least Mandela saved his country from messianic leadership — a true saviour. An icon of moral example, his political stewardship went beyond the stock images of presiding over South Africa’s 1995 Rugby World Cup championship or receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 — without any stellar specific achievements in his 1994-9 presidency, he consolidated the new democratic institutions amid a delicate balance between black empowerment and maintaining South Africa’s economic credibility abroad while faced with the twin scourges of an exploding crime rate and an AIDS pandemic.
Mandela is gone but his testimony will long outlive him.