As close as anyone gets to making a big difference
By using power to build rather than destroy and relinquish it so selflessly, Mandela's legacy is that of a great human being, writes Dan O'Brien
'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely". This is almost certainly the most frequently misquoted comment on political affairs. "Tends" is the crucial word so often omitted from the famous remark uttered by John Dalberg – better known as Lord Acton (and less well known for representing the constituency of Carlow at Westminster in the mid-19th Century).
Few if any people have ever shown how power need not corrupt more clearly than Nelson Mandela. Since his death three days ago the great man has rightly been extolled for his many virtues – compassion, forgiveness, serenity, magnanimity and the avoidance of bitterness. But that less fashionable virtue – restraint – was among his most distinguishing characteristics. How restrained he was in exercising the enormous power he wielded, and how he voluntarily walked away from that power after just five years, would, on their own, have marked him out for greatness.
When Mandela became South Africa's president after that country's first free election in 1994, the ANC had an overwhelming parliamentary majority. Although constitutionally obliged to form a coalition with the two other significant parties in parliament, the dominance of the ANC and Mandela's own personal stature – with his party and across the world – effectively gave him free rein.