‘Who,’ the child asked,‘will look af­ter the world now?’

Eye

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - NELSON MANDELA 1918-2013 - WIL­LIAM SAUN­DER­SON–MEYER Jaun­diced

“A GI­ANT is about to de­part, leav­ing po­lit­i­cal pyg­mies to di­vide his cloak and squab­ble about who is the right­ful heir. The me­dia will be wall to wall with plau­dits, the world will groan with grief.”

I wrote those words in a col­umn some five months ago, as Nel­son Rolih­lala Man­dela lay in a Pre­to­ria hos­pi­tal, slowly slip­ping away from us. And so now it has come to pass, as we all ex­pected.

For this is a death that ar­rived as no sur­prise. For years, as he aged, we fret­ted about its in­evitabil­ity and feared its con­se­quences. As he drifted in and out of con­scious­ness in that in­ten­sive care unit, we re­coiled at its im­mi­nence. And when he went home, we all knew that the end was near.

Yet still, when it came it felt like a body blow. And as it is with the death of any­one we cher­ish, it has been a roller-coaster of love, re­gret, fear and some­times com­edy.

Broad­caster Kate Turk­ing­ton cap­tured our help­less­ness with a tweet about the re­sponse of a sixyear-old to the news. “Who,” the child asked, “will look af­ter the world now?”

What­ever his fail­ings – and he read­ily ac­knowl­edged that he had many – Man­dela re­ally did seem to look af­ter not only South Africa, but the world. As the Bri­tish sculp­tor Deb­o­rah Mo tweeted in the early hours af­ter Man­dela’s death, and has been echoed in var­i­ous it­er­a­tions since, “We are all or­phans now”.

There are some who will find this world­wide out­pour­ing of grief ex­ces­sive and false. It was R W John­son, the po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor and Lon­don Sun­day Times jour­nal­ist, who warned at the end of Man­dela’s only term as South Africa’s pres­i­dent, in 1999, against the “cult of Man­dela”.

This crav­ing on the part of the world for a “true black su­per­hero”, was a fu­tile at­tempt to find an an­ti­dote to the many fail­ures of Africa, he ar­gued. “The need for the black su­per­hero is too over­whelm­ing for any crit­i­cism to stick and the for­ti­tude of those years in jail trumps all other con­sid­er­a­tions.”

There’s a sim­i­lar counter-note, al­though very much in the mi­nor­ity at the mo­ment, which is al­ready be­ing struck on the so­cial me­dia sites. From the white right it re­volves around Man­dela be­ing a “ter­ror­ist” and a com­mu­nist. From the black na­tion­al­ists it re­volves around him hav­ing “sold out” the black man in a fool­ish com­pro­mise with white in­ter­ests.

There can be no doubt that the his­tor­i­cal re­vi­sion­ists will also soon be in full cry. We will be re­minded of Man­dela’s fail­ings: that his po­lit­i­cal legacy is nu­ga­tory and al­ready tar­nished; that as pres­i­dent he was ad­min­is­tra­tively in­ef­fec­tual; and that by ig­nor­ing both Aids and cor­rup­tion when th­ese dis­eases were just be­gin­ning to seed, he be­queathed the na­tion twin plagues that are rav­aging South Africa still.

There is some truth in all of those crit­i­cisms, al­though it is his­tor­i­cally far too early to be de­fin­i­tive about the true heft of his po­lit­i­cal achieve­ments. But even if the crit­ics were en­tirely true, it would not much mat­ter.

For there is the rare states­man whose con­tri­bu­tion lies not in a ticked off list of man­i­festo prom­ises. In­stead their con­tri­bu­tion lies in an abil­ity to shape and ar­tic­u­late a na­tion’s finest in­stincts at a crit­i­cal junc­ture.

John F Kennedy did so for the US, de­spite his brief ten­ure as pres­i­dent and his man­i­fest per­sonal fail­ings. Win­ston Churchill, in the dark­est hours of World War II, did so for Bri­tain.

And, on a much greater scale, that is what Man­dela has done. He re­minded us that we have a choice of whether to be good or evil, to build or de­stroy.

He demon­strated not that he was a “black su­per­hero”, but how the or­di­nary man and woman of what­ever race, can choose to act with no­bil­ity, hu­mil­ity and courage.

Man­dela is cher­ished not only be­cause he was ex­cep­tional, but be­cause he made it pos­si­ble for us to be ex­cep­tional.

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