Mandela – Icon of Liberty and Peace
I have just been watching the memorial service for Nelson Mandela live from South Africa and, since a couple of my recent posts have been about death, grief and celebrating lives, I felt moved to add my words to the millions that have been set down following the death of that Icon of Liberty and Peace, Nelson Mandela. He has changed the world in a good way – and you cannot say that about most politicians without generating some disagreement. He was an exception in so many ways – he was, indeed, exceptional, in the best and most enduring sense of the word.
Those of you who saw something of the service, either live or on the news summaries, will have seen the very heavy rain that accompanied the service. It clearly had an effect on numbers attending the event but the spirit of joy and celebration, too, was still evident. No doubt some of the family members may have found it something of a “duty” to share their man with the world but he was always, genuinely, a man of the people. And not simply the people of South Africa, but of the world too, as was evidenced by the sheer numbers of heads of state, politicians, and former politicians who turned up to be there and brave the weather.
One of the things that struck me from the commentary was the apparent difference in culture with respect to the rain itself. In the UK we talk of it in a different way than that in South Africa – we speak of it “threatening to rain”, whereas in SA, perhaps in Africa generally, they speak of it as “promising to rain”. And to have it rain at your funeral is, apparently, very auspicious – not only that the earth is getting ready to accept your bones but as an indication that the “gates of heaven are already open”.
One of the speakers at the funeral referred to the probability that Nelson Mandela would be “…looking down on the events and smiling”. It always seemed to me that his smile was one of his biggest political assets and the fact that it was always so readily to hand (that surely should read ‘readily to face’?!) showed something of the inner warmth and wisdom of the man. Given his long incarceration it also showed a lot about his strength and tenacity, too.
He was, of course, inspirational (and long may he remain so, for many generations to come) and that smile was part of his inspirational being. President Obama spoke a few days ago of how he could not imagine his own journey in politics without the inspirational effect of Nelson Mandela – and that was something Mandela shared with John F Kennedy about whom I posted a little while ago (they were born within a year of each other). They both had the power to inspire others, a great political gift, of course.
Another thing that struck me about the service was the multi-faith aspect of it. Mr. Mandela had been the star speaker at the eight-day Parliament of the World’s Religions, which was held in Cape Town in December 1999. and he viewed religions as an important factor for change in South Africa. The report from that meeting included the following paragraphs…
The 81-year-old former head of the liberation struggle against apartheid said his generation was the product of religious education. “We grew up at a time when the government of this country owed its duty only to whites, a minority of less than 15 per cent. It took no interest whatsoever in our education.”
It was religious institutions — Christian, Muslim, Hindu and Jewish — which bought land, built and equipped schools, employed teachers and paid them.
“Without the church religious institutions, I would never have been here today,” Mr. Mandela said. “But to appreciate the importance of religion, you have to have been in a South African jail under apartheid, where you could see the cruelty of human beings to others in its naked form. It was again religious institutions who gave us hope that one day we would come out of prison.”
There were too many politicians there to comment individually on them all, of course, but, since I am writing this from Brazil, I noted that Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was greeted well by the crowds in the stadium. She shares with Mandela an historical fact of being, in the words of the New York Times, a former “guerrilla leader” turned into a President.
I also noted that former SA President F W de Klerk was warmly greeted by several senior black political leaders in the stadium – clearly he deserves considerable historical respect for his brave “realpolitik” at the time, ceding his power, to provide a relatively smooth transition from Apartheid to Liberty in South Africa. If you want to hear what he had to say about Mandela on CNN with Christiane Amanpour click on the link below – it was a very moving tribute from Mandella’s fellow Nobel Peace laureate.
Nelson Mandela stood head and shoulders above any other political leader in my lifetime but his modesty would probably not allow him to agree with that comment, which was a significant factor in his success. Long may his integrity, wisdom, and compassion be a model for aspiring politicians for generations to come.
I referred above to John F Kennedy and Nelson Mandela as approximate contemporaries but their deaths, separated by almost exactly 50 years, provide very different historical perspectives upon the world in which we now live. May they both be remembered with affection as well as with inspiration.