Ordinary Fears, Extraordinary Man: The Legacy of Nelson Mandela

The Legacy of Nelson Mandela

If all the famous gathered in a room, all the attention would be on Nelson Mandela. He is without a doubt the most well-known and respected public figure in the world. And yet, as I also personally experienced as a young South African diplomat serving in Washington D.C. during the apartheid-to-democracy transition period, when such gatherings took place, Nelson Mandela made an effort to seek out and recognize the invisibles: the waiters, the doorman, the kitchen staff, the security. It is this equal dignity with which he treated all the people he encountered, whether famous world leaders, hollywood or bollywood stars, or the people cleaning his hotel room, that will always stay with me in my personal memories of him.

In his own writings and in interviews he was at pains to stress that he was no saint. He said he was an ordinary man, with the same fears, self-doubts and vanities we all share. He acknowledged that he neglected his first family, and one can see from his early photos that he enjoyed his handsomeness, especially in a good suit. He had a great need to be liked and was able to muster considerable charm to win over any doubters. Once you were won over, however, he would expect loyalty and he would lead with conviction and principle – his need for recognition never translated into him bending to the wind of popular opinion.

He explained, with reference for instance to his arrest, sentencing (which could have been the death penalty) and imprisonment, that to act brave one needs to pretend to be brave.  His message to us was that he was not somehow extraordinarily courageous, but rather that we can all be as brave as Mandela if we choose to be (and as he explained it, if you put on a convincing enough act).

He was a political firebrand in his youth – he led the African National Congress away from a decades long legacy of peaceful civil disobedience, formed an armed wing, sought military training and started a campaign of sabotage against government targets for which he was convicted and placed on terrorism lists all over the world.

Yet, somehow what lied at the core of his personality matured over the years in prison and formed him into the enormously disciplined and principled person South Africa and the world got to know after his release from prison. He was unwavering in his loyalty to those that supported the anti-apartheid struggle, even when people like Gaddafi disappointed him on other counts. He was stubborn in his convictions, for instance his support for retaining some of the old national sporting symbols (as depicted in the film Invictus), despite strong opposition from his closest advisors and supports.

His greatest legacy was his strong principled support for reconciliation. Somehow, despite spending most of his adult life as a prisoner of the apartheid government, he negotiated a peace deal that offered the very rights and protection he was denied to those that imprisoned him.

Mandela was not, of course solely responsible for the ultimately peaceful transition in South Africa. We were blessed by a convergence of extraordinary personalities, including people like de Klerk, Tutu, Ramaphosa and Mbeki. Mandela would also have been at pains to stress the role that most ordinary South African played over this period to ensure, through goodwill, sacrifice and dedication, that the transition from apartheid to democracy was managed without the country lapsing into violent conflict. It is somehow overlooked in popular history but more than 4,000 people lost their lives over this volatile period, through political violence unleashed by white and black extremist and secret rogue pro-apartheid government agents. On several occasions they brought South Africa to the brink of civil war. Mandela’s role, through his personal story and his calm unwavering commitment, was to convince South Africa and the world that reconciliation was not only desirable, but achievable.

The most critical moment during the South African transition was the assassination of Chris Hani on 10 April 1993. At the time of his murder he led the South African Communist Party and he headed the armed wing of the African National Congress. If he survived he most likely would have been South Africa’s president today. His murder came at a highly sensitive time in the South African transition, and it brought the country to the brink of civil war. It was immediately expected, and later proven in court, to be an attempt by right-wing extremist to derail the process leading to the end of apartheid. The person responsible was eventually caught and is still in prison. On the day of the assassination Nelson Mandela made an impassioned call for calm during a national television broadcast. He acted presidential and assumed responsibility for calming the nation, even though he was at that point still only the president of his movement. His message emphasized reconciliation and the rule of law, and his plea, together with similar calls by many other South African leaders from different constituencies, managed to contain the unrest and violence that followed in the wake of Hani’s assassination.

It is fair to say that if we did not have the leadership and moral courage of Nelson Mandela during that critical period in our transition, the South African story would have been very different. His own story, and the role he played in our collective story, has thus made an enormous difference to the lives of every South African, and his legacy will continue to influence the lives of all South Africans in the future.

Some see the shadow of that alternative future in the troubles that are plaguing South Africa today. However, Mandela’s ultimate legacy is that he has laid a solid foundation for South Africa’s post-apartheid future – in the form of a robust constitution, independent judiciary, strong institutions, resilient economy and a significant role in Africa and on the international stage. That foundation is so solid that the scope of the challenges we face today, and are likely to face in the conceivable future, will not be able to drive South Africa backwards into violent conflict.

Originally published as: Ordinary Fears, Extraordinary Man: The Legacy of Nelson Mandela, Global Observatory, International Peace Institute, 6 December 2013, available at: http://theglobalobservatory.org/opinion/635-ordinary-fears-extraordinary-man-the-legacy-of-nelson-mandela.html

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