A man of giant moral dimensions
The name Nelson Mandela is synonymous with the sacrifice of personal freedom for the freedoms of others, writes Michael Morris.
Cape Town - The world paused on Thursday night at the death of Nelson Mandela, Africa's greatest leader and a man whose convictions and warmth of spirit touched strangers and friends far beyond the continent.
In London and Perth, Havana, Oslo, Moscow, Ottawa and Mumbai, people who conceivably have never set foot in Africa will have absorbed the news, or told a friend or thought the words, privately, “Nelson Mandela is dead” and have felt some distinct sense of loss.
On every continent he is remembered for his idealism, for it serves all people, inspiring millions.
Few figures of modern history have been as influential or as admired. The name Nelson Mandela is synonymous with fortitude and humanity, and the sacrifice of personal freedom for the freedoms of others.
A man of giant moral dimensions, he remained true to his mortal self, never pretending he was faultless or any worthier than the people he gave up so much for.
He was capable of being autocratic, he could be difficult, even stubborn. But, for all his stature, he cast less a shadow than a beam of smiling tolerance and goodwill. Deeply earnest in his convictions, he was generous in his humour and sense of fun, delighting in turning it on himself.
With almost impish enjoyment, he once recalled how only months after his release from prison he had been invited to rest and recharge his batteries at a benefactor’s bushveld retreat. One morning he took himself for a walk in the forest and after some time of solitary meandering along a path, met a group of village women coming in the opposite direction.
He stopped to greet them, and lingered as they chatted, joined soon by some others.
The conversation dwelled on an imminent wedding in the district, and now and then Mandela was asked for his opinion, which he gave, much enjoying this ordinary social exchange after his almost three prison decades without any such opportunity.
Eventually, Mandela remembered, when the matrimonial subject was exhausted, the vagaries of love, the merits and otherwise of the respective families, and the promise of the feast to come, one of the women turned to him, this one among the handful of the century’s most famous men.
“By the way,” she asked, “who are you?”
Forthright, sometimes fierce, and also, at times, mistaken, as a politician, he succeeded in holding always before him the vision of a common South Africanhood and was selfless in pursuing – and in large measure attaining – the goal of a national unity the world had long doubted was even remotely possible. Though indispensable to it, he was not the sole architect of South Africa’s democratic order, and was always punctilious in acknowledging the contributions of others, including rivals.
He was supremely loyal to the African National Congress – in weaker moments, blindly so – yet reserved for himself the prerogative to act on his own, where his convictions led him.
He is justly revered as a great son of Africa.
Mandela was born in a very different world from the one he died in; it is a measure of his extraordinary impact that if his childhood world made him, he played so great a part in making the world he departed at his death.
Mandela’s youthful radicalism was a prelude to his role in the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the launch of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961.
The armed struggle, he said in the Rivonia Trial in 1964, served “the ideal of a democratic and free society... which I hope to live for and to achieve (and) for which I am prepared to die”.
This conviction cost him 27 years in jail. Notably, it was as a prisoner in the 1980s that Mandela unilaterally initiated the talks that culminated in the historic settlement and his inaugural presidency of a democratic South Africa.
He was president for just one term, yet remained – and, in a sense, remains – the moral lodestar of South African democracy.
He had much to be disillusioned by in a lifetime of hardships and disappointments, yet never surrendered the vision which is perhaps his most precious legacy to his people.
“I have taken a moment here to rest,” he wrote in the final passage of his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, “to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come. But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”