Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, statesman, former president and hero to every believer in democracy, died on December 5 2013 the South African city of Johannesburg at the age of 95.
Even in these recent years when little was heard from or seen of Mandela, and moreover so much in his years in the public eye, Mandela was the warmth of the fire around which the people of a new South Africa gathered.
It is ironic that we saw so little of him in his final years. For so many decades, while he was held in prison, in South Africa it was illegal to show pictures of him. Then, it was his name that was a symbol, a rallying cry, the inspirer of songs.
For some, there was the possibility see the old photographs from the 1950s and very early 1960s. There was Time magazine’s valiant effort at a photokit, based on contemporary accounts.
Finally, one February day, that face emerged, to become one of the best-known and most-loved in South Africa and the world – and this tribute toMandela will record, but pay little heed and no respect to, those who will cling to the notion of Mandela as terrorist, phony or sellout, depending on which particular patch of bitter ground they stand.
The shorthand for headline-writers for him now is “former president” but he was so much more than that – when severe violence threatened the pre-democracy negotiations process, it was Mandela who addressed the nation, providing the leadership and guidance that the apartheid government then still in power could not.
The four years of his single presidential term were the headiest of days. His first address to Parliament as President; his seemingly boundless energy as he became the embodiment of reconciliation; the personal charisma that led to the “Madiba Magic” cliché that was stamped on almost every headline and caption about a Mandela visit to a school, a wedding, the unveiling of a project.
Oddly, he was no great shakes as a public speaker, rather wooden in his delivery, but that mattered little; this was Mandela, after all. So often, at the conclusion of the remarks prepared for him, he would remove his spectacles and underline, one more time — but freshly to every new audience – his stated conviction that merit in South Africa was not a matter of skin colour. At rural gatherings, in front of business associations, to the young, on the international stage, to audiences abroad of bankers, politicians and students, he said, it, time and again.
The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town had, in the years when Mandela was still in prison, spoken of South Africans as “the rainbow people of God”. A free Mandela was the soul of the Rainbow Nation.
Yet he was no saint. He had a temper. He had his gaffes. Idiosyncratic attachments to discredit dictators like Gaddaffi and Castro, and not only them, were among his failings. He himself did not always get his way – although he relied so much on Thabo Mbeki in the running of the country during his presidency, Mandela did not want to be succeeded by him.
Mandela was never exempt from criticism, including from those who perceived him as extending himself too far in the cause of reconciliation.
But, in the same way that it is wrong to speak of the “miracle” of South Africa’s electoral transition to democracy, because that was a collective effort by millions of people, so too it is wrong to ascribe either all of the achievements or all of the failures to Mandela, the statesman and leader. He saw himself always as part of a collective, politically a “loyal and disciplined member of the ANC”, as he repeated so often.
Any approach towards understanding Mandela’s role must take into account what may have been had there been no Mandela; no grandfather for the nation, no one of that gigantic stature to encourage and to chide.
But that is idle chatter; history gave him to South Africa, and – importantly – to the world. Elsewhere, every troubled country that may despair of its future, of the seeming intractability of its political problems, can look to the spirit that always will stand tall at that southern stretch of the great African continent, inspiring every warm memory.
It is well that July 18, his birthday, is now commemorated as Mandela Day, a day to devote 67 minutes in symbolic homage to his years of service. His death means the tears of loss; his immortal soul, celebration of the generosity of a spirit that gave so much of itself to us.
((Main photo: Library of the London School of Economics and Political Science)