Mandela wasn't just a politician – but a prophet for the world
Life would not have been complete without Nelson Mandela but his greatest work is just beginning – that of a guide for humanity.
IT is July 2, 2003, in a hall as grand as Great Britain can muster, and a setting as far from a traditional African seat of power as one could conjure. A scene is developing, like a photograph in a tray, and it depicts the extraordinary metamorphosis of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela into the most revered human being in the world.
Among red, ornate, throne-like seats on a raised dais in a room so pomp-filled it makes the guests in the packed hall feel they inhabit a dreamscape, are gathered powerful and famous men – mostly from the northern hemisphere. Here is British Prime Minister Tony Blair, explosively energetic, bobbing on the balls of his feet, pumping the hands of dignitaries.
Here, too, is former US president Bill Clinton, wafting his effortless aura over the VIPs on the stage. Here are many others who, on another night, would command star billing themselves: former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney, University of Oxford chancellor Chris Patten, Rhodes Trust chairman Lord Waldegrave, former New York mayor David Dinkins, De Beers head Nicky Oppenheimer . . . the list is long.
They are distracted, awaiting the arrival of the most famous of them all.
When at last he is sighted, silhouetted between the gigantic doors of Westminster Hall at the farthest point from the stage, it is all the room can do to stop short of spontaneous combustion. Nelson Mandela, retired octogenarian leader of a smallish country on the southern extremity of the world's poorest continent, has arrived and the night is his. This is a far cry from the days when black South African leaders travelled to the imperial capital as supplicants and petitioners.
As Mandela makes his beaming way slowly up the long centre aisle, the assembled guests – 1,000 and more of them – look and sound for a moment like nothing more than superannuated pop fans. It is a quite extraordinary sight, and Blair and Clinton step back imperceptibly for the star of the show.
The scene gives visual expression to the transcendent stature that developed around this African icon, subsequently claimed as the world's. No amount of First World political choreography could have faked this status, which many of us came to take for granted.
And this makes it all the more intriguing to ask the question: if it is true that no one could have predicted this outcome at the time of Mandela's release from a South African prison in 1990, how then did it come about?
Not only has he been unquestionably the commanding moral figure in all South African history; he has been the commanding moral figure for the entire 20th century. As former President Thabo Mbeki wrote at the time of Mandela's 85th birthday: "He is God's gift to the world . . . Life would be incomplete without his being . . . He will remain an icon for all time whenever and wherever people have discourse about human yearnings for freedom and justice."
Let us roll back the years to try to scratch the surface of the phenomenon. In 1994 the man who four years previously had been the world's most famous (but silenced and hidden) political prisoner was on the brink of becoming the first democratic president of a country not many in the international community gave a chance of sealing the faultlines of its history. He was a celebrity, yes, but an icon only to his committed followers. This was to change dramatically in the decade to come.
His political trajectory might have been expected to follow a course in which he became a successful president of his country for the remainder of his career, notching up admirable political achievements in reconciliation and reconstruction after apartheid, but not global adulation. But this would have been to underestimate Nelson Mandela: instead, he insisted on stepping down from the presidency after only one term, and came by the end of the millennium to personify hope and integrity for an entire brutalised world.
In trying to pick up the trail of this transition, it could be argued that Mandela became too important to stay president of South Africa – or of any other mere country, for that matter. This is not something he himself ever said, or likely even thought. But it became true over time.
The late Professor Jakes Gerwel, cabinet secretary during the Mandela presidency and later chairman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Mandela Rhodes Foundation, believed it was more helpful to approach the Mandela phenomenon as if one was dealing with a prophet, rather than a politician. Indeed. Relinquishing the presidency allowed Mandela to grow into that role.
The evolution to timeless and rarefied icon was never planned, but one has the feeling it might somehow have been ordained; as if a world that was to become more and more troubled more and more needed a Nelson Mandela.
That he was South African was incidental (and fortunately so, for all his compatriots). It is also worth remembering that Mandela himself was never a static personality; he evolved through many phases. It is not often recalled these days that he started out as a militant Africanist and anti-communist, or that he reiterated just before his release – a nice ellipse, given his earlier ideological position – his commitment to the nationalisation of industry, this in a note to the then British ambassador.
In tandem with internal South African dynamics, events in the world well outside South Africa's remit played a great part in what came to pass. Just as the drawing back of the Iron Curtain was an unexpected spur to then president F W de Klerk's transformative decision to unban liberation movements and free their leaders, so global developments accelerated the globalisation of Nelson Mandela.
Simply put, as geopolitics became more fractured and fractious – exploding on September 11, 2001, and culminating in the invasion of Iraq and the arrival of the modern and deeply contested notion of 'regime change' – Mandela's consistent voice of reconciliation and negotiation was heard ever more plainly.
Interestingly, and this supports the contention that we are in an arena above and beyond conventional politics, the precise content of his post-presidential political interventions mattered less with each passing year.
In a curious way, not his own doing, Mandela was built into an almost fictional character, but one whose influence was entirely practical and therefore nonfictional. It is true to say that, merely because of his age, his greatest formal speeches were made long ago, but that does not mean that his impact waned in his later years.
Far from it; his canon was complete, and the greatest work of his life, which will continue long after his death, is just beginning. It is the work of a guide for humanity. It is about distilling into one persona the entire zeitgeist, the yearnings of a world of confused, longing human beings. His greatness is enhanced because it is deeply human – he had the ability, in a sense, to make people feel unworthy and to aspire to greater worthiness at the same time.
Mandela's canonisation appealed to his own sense of humour (how many more times did he need to say he was not a saint to have people stop portraying him as one?) but his political antennae ensured that he well understood the value for good of the power conferred.
Throughout his career, he was not all-wise, never claimed to be, but the real question is: could anyone else have had his impact? What kind of transition would South Africa have had without Mandela reaching his own conclusions in prison about negotiations, and then presiding over their completion? What other person of our times could have become the world's moral conscience?
It is not coincidental that nearly 10 years ago, he, his family, his advisers and staff began to hone the work of the three distinct but linked 'legacy organisations' that bear his name: the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory and the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund, based in Johannesburg, and The Mandela Rhodes Foundation in Cape Town.
It was considered important that the work of these institutions be seen to be valid and measurable in its own right, not necessarily relying on the day-to-day involvement of their ageing patron and founder.
It seems long ago now that the scare-stories about what would happen to South Africa "when Mandela went" had currency. His pre-emptive handover to then deputy president Mbeki neutralised that even before he stepped down from the presidency. The more relevant question today, and it applies to the whole world rather than just our country, is: will his legacy be managed in a manner worthy of the man? That seems to me to be the most solemn of duties.
In terms of his continuing public appearances in the later years, it became evident that it was enough, then, for Nelson Mandela simply to appear to have his effect. His charisma and sense of the profound gesture (such as the Betsie Verwoerd tea-taking, the rugby World Cup final of 1995, and his appearance at 46664 HIV/Aids concerts) are well documented, but in the mature stage of the post-presidential years 'Madiba' did not need even to make an address – he had merely to be in order to have his effect on people.
Watching this at firsthand, anywhere in the world, was enough to make one gasp. There was an embodiment and a transmission of goodness, moral courage, humour. And the magical smile was so important – the gift of being able to make other people feel better about themselves.
This was not just about a mega-celebrity in an era laughably besotted with fame. It was beyond; a new category we must yet understand properly and define, and wonder whether we will be lucky enough to witness again. It is also a role so elevated that it inevitably brought with it a loneliness that even those closest to him could never eradicate – but that is another subject.
So there again is the proud sight of Nelson Mandela holding transfixed the great and good in Westminster Hall, three years into the new millennium. His delivery is not as clear and assured as it once was, and he strains to hear. Still, every person in the room feels immeasurably enriched.
He is talking of Walter Sisulu, delivering a homily about the principles of simplicity and integrity that drove his friend's life, and he is graciously placing Sisulu, not himself, as the great intellectual of their movement. He is talking more as a prophet than a politician. Now he is leaving the hall, supported on either side by Blair and Clinton. He is walking more as a prophet than a politician. It is how I will always remember him.
Shaun Johnson, an award-winning author, worked closely with Nelson Mandela from 1990 to 2003 as a political correspondent, editor, and media executive, and worked for him from 2003 to 2013 running The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, a charitable organisation dedicated to building exceptional leadership in Africa.