We all like to have heroes, but it’s fair to say the world has had few heroes like Nelson Mandela. Respect for him transcended politics and nationality; he was not just the liberator of his own people but an example to the world.
Fear of a bloodbath in South Africa was a constant presence in my childhood and early adulthood. Mandela may not have been the only person who could have prevented it, but he was the one who did. A decade and a half after his retirement his country still has many problems, but its people are free and equal to an extent that only the wildest optimists thought possible 30 years ago.
By the 1990s apartheid had few explicit defenders, and most of its sympathisers – both in South Africa and overseas – were won over by Mandela’s unshakable commitment to peace and reconciliation. He became a bipartisan icon in a way that perhaps no other politician in modern times has been able to maintain.
Nations have their own heroes; left and right (and their various sects) have party heroes. But the world had Mandela.
Even the liberation of the Soviet empire – a much bigger project than freeing South Africa – left no-one of comparable stature. Maybe the wounds of partisanship were still too raw. Lech Walesa and Mikhail Gorbachev, its greatest surviving figures, are half-forgotten by comparison.
Almost a decade ago, when Yasser Arafat died, I courted controversy by saying that he had disobeyed Nietzsche’s injunction to “Die at the right time!” If Mandela instead had died at the age of 70 – “still powerless, in prison, at the mercy of his enemies’ propaganda” – he would have been damned in the same terms that Arafat was.
It was that extra 25 years that gave Mandela the opportunity to be a hero, but it was what he did with it that made him one. He found a partner in peace in F.W. De Klerk, as Arafat had in Yitzhak Rabin; but De Klerk, unlike Rabin, lived to complete the project, and Mandela scarcely put a foot wrong in bringing it to fruition.
Mandela never sought to be a world figure. South Africa was his cause, and his gratitude to those who had assisted its struggle, understandable though it was, sometimes led him into questionable judgements. He could seem blind to the faults of African dictators, and uncaring about their people’s demands for democracy.
But their liberty was for them to fight for; he was content to have won the victory for his own people. And he was fortunate enough to live on into a long and honored retirement; to serve as an inspiration to the rest of the world, and to see the things he had risked his life for come to seem uncontroversial.
The best tribute that we can pay him is to remember how different it all looked at the start of his long walk to freedom.