NELSON Mandela, one of the most influential men of the 20th century, revered as a symbol of justice and fortitude, leaves a southern African milieu made unrecognisably different from the one he was born into by the ideals and achievements to which he devoted much of his extraordinary life.
He was a complex figure capable of alluring and convincing simplicity, for, though he stood head and shoulders above the crowd, he never claimed heroic status, or placed selfish interest above the common good. Mandela could be difficult, even imperious, yet succeeded in balancing his contradictions not only with flair, but wisdom, and sustaining the ideals of justice and freedom.
Absolutely loyal to his beloved African National Congress, Mandela was an unimpeachable democrat – a conviction he might well have died for, and was prepared to do, in 1964 – yet, at the height of white nationalism’s intransigence, Mandela was the man who engaged the minority regime in dia- logue, believing his own movement’s insurgency and the intensifying repression that was the Nationalist government’s primary response, was doomed to be inconclusive. It was the considered initiative of a leader for whom leadership naturally entailed personal risk, boldness and foresight.
He emerged from nearly three decades in prison to find a society riven with division, yet willing, broadly, to help forge a new kind of belonging. The welling of enthusiasm for a negotiated settlement and the crafting of a democratic South African-ness was, in large part, stimulated by Mandela’s own inspiring influence and the confidence he placed in South Africans themselves.
Ironically, his long imprisonment wrought a surer, more self-possessed man for whom prison bars could never contain an expansive and generous vision, or his determination to see it realised.
A deeper irony is perhaps that, with hindsight, his most glaring political error was also a signal virtue; he stood down too soon, eager, by eschewing the temptations of power, to provide a democratic example to his successors and the continent.
Dismay at the dearth of visionary leadership since has been a theme of the national conversation – yet Mandela’s challenge remains as vivid at his death, for his extraordinary example survives him.