Man­dela’s be­quest

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - COMMENT -

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.

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