Political sage beloved and respected by whole world
His long walk over at last, Nelson Mandela was a global hero who did what was right and inspired a generation
NELSON Mandela was a man, always, of his time. Yet he was, paradoxically, one who in some ways stood apart from– and even above that time. It was in this that his greatness lay.
Yet he was more even than that. The magnanimity he displayed, as the white rule of apartheid crumbled in his native South Africa in 1990, created a paradigm shift in what was possible – even thinkable – in modern politics.
Because of those extraordinary personal qualities, the name of Nelson Mandela sits as comfortably in a litany of his Century's great spiritual leaders – such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King – as it does among the 20th-Century's iconic political figures, such as Lenin, Churchill, Mao and Gorbachev, who shaped the destiny of their nations.
"I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying," he once observed, with a touch of asperity. He was no holy fool but a holy sage. He brought together integrity and calculation in a singular political package.
From the beginning of his public life he demonstrated a paradoxical combination: being of his time and yet leading it on toward a better future.
When Mandela was put on trial for plotting to overthrow the government by violence in 1963 he made a statement from the dock which echoed round the world.
It did not save him from prison. But over the next 27 years which he spent in jail, studying for a London law degree by post, his international reputation grew steadily.
"Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world," he later said.
He was educating not just himself but international opinion. As the years passed the figure of the jailed Mandela – a man of unblemished integrity and a prisoner of conscience – became a powerful global symbol of resistance. The anti-apartheid movement developed a slow but irresistible momentum.
Yet even when the white regime of P W Botha began negotiations with Mandela in his prison cell in the mid 1980s, the jailed leader consistently refused to compromise his political position to obtain freedom.
Botha's successor, F W de Klerk, saw the black writing on the white wall and, with considerable foresight and bravery, in 1990 released Mandela from prison, lifted the ban on the ANC and paved the way for a new majority-vote South African constitution.
In 1993, the black-and-white leaders were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But Mandela was awarded something more profound – the respect of the world – for the way he then conducted himself. "As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn't leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I'd still be in prison," he later wrote.
It was a political as well as a personal insight. "You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution," he added.
In his jail on Robben Island a humiliating punishment was inflicted by the white warders on the black prisoners. They were routinely made to dig a pit and drop into it. The jailors then urinated on the inmates, before making them fill in the pit. Against that background it was an act of exceptional generosity of spirit that led Nelson Mandela to invite a number of his white warders to his first official dinner at President of South Africa.
"I dream of an Africa which is at peace with itself," said Mandela the visionary.
"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner," said Mandela the strategist
Mandela's shrewdness, combined with his noble high-mindedness, made him a beacon of peace and reconciliation throughout the world. "I learned that courage was not the absence of fear," he said, "but the triumph over it."
All political careers, it is said, end in tears. But Nelson Mandela's did not. He did not stand for a second term as president of South Africa but left the stage with dignity and an affection that bordered on love from millions of people who had never met him.
He was not a man without human frailty. In the early years he was, his first wife Evelyn Mase said, "a dandy and adulterer".
Later in the ANC he organised a sabotage campaign against military and government targets, and made plans for a guerrilla war if sabotage failed to end apartheid – something he later told his own Truth and Reconciliation Commission violated human rights. And when he became President he initially failed to understand the seriousness of the threat posed by Aids to his people and did not do enough to combat the pandemic.
Yet towering above all that was his heroic virtue.
In 2005 he appeared in London before 20,000 people at a Make Poverty History rally in Trafalgar Square. Bob Geldof introduced him to the crowd as "The President of the World". Mandela spoke like one.
Eradicating poverty, he said, could be, like abolishing slavery or apartheid, the work of a single generation. His peroration concluded:
"Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You could be that generation."
The genius of Nelson Mandela was that he did not just believe that. He made us believe it too.