Mandela’s legacy of reconciliation is one to be cherished and handed down
Opinion: Far from venting a justified rage, he set an example of forgiveness for his nation and the world
It is particularly important that our children absorb some of his message and the significance of his passing. Photograph: AP
Ten to ten on Thursday night, December 5th, 2013, will be one of those moments we will remember where we were when we heard the news. The death of Mandela was not the sudden shock which John F Kennedy’s was for our parents’ generation in 1963, or which Princess Diana was in 1997, but we still all appreciate that it will mark a significant moment in history. Its real impact, however, lies in the fact that for each of us his passing echoes a Mandela moment in our own lives.
The news of Mandela’s death instantly dominated all television channels, all talk radio stations and almost all Twitter timelines. The coverage however may, initially at least, have been pitched wrongly in this part of the world. It was dominated inevitably by a parade of political leaders paying their tributes with some offering their own direct memories of meeting the man. It was hard amidst the media traffic Thursday night to hear South African voices.
I was drawn to the words of one New Ross-based friend, who proclaims herself as “Passionately Afro-Irish” and who tweeted within an hour of the news: “How do you explain the grief/relief. I’m one of his 46 million children, he was the favourite uncle and godfather of 7 billion #Mandiba”.
In the coming days as Mandela is laid to rest, the focus will most likely switch more to South Africa itself, where the loss is obviously most keenly felt. However, we will also continue to have a sense of loss throughout the wider world. This weekend we mark the passing not so much of a former president and a modern philosopher but also of a popular cultural icon. Who would have thought that in this age of searing cynicism it is a politician who would emerge as the hero of the age?
I shook hands with him once in a line of hundreds of well-wishers at an event in Dublin Castle. I was among the tens of thousands in Croke Park present for that magical night in 2003 when he opened the International Special Olympics Games. Visiting South Africa some years ago I did the tour of Robben Island and was struck, as hundreds of thousands of visitors are each year, by the blinding sun on the white lime quarry where he and his follower prisoners worked and by the smallness of the cells where they were kept.
The Mandela moment that first came to mind on Thursday evening is marked most strongly in my memory as much because of those with whom I shared it as the moment itself. I remember one Sunday lunchtime being at home with my parents and most of my siblings watching television. Watching television in the middle of the day was itself an extraordinary thing. We were all waiting for Mandela’s release and then together watched his iconic walk to freedom.
Free Mandela songs, news reports of the international campaign for his release and coverage of police attacks on students in South Africa were part of the soundtrack of our teenage years. Now the transformation in South Africa was the optimistic story of our twenties.
Although he was of retirement age when released, Mandela went on to lead the process of transformation of his nation. He, of all people, would have been justified in venting angry rage at what he and his non-white countrymen and women had been forced to endure. He would have been justified in leading popular forces of protest to overthrow the all-white government. Instead, in a series of small and large steps shrouded in carefully chosen words of reconciliation, he set an example of forgiveness for his own people and for all subjected to injustice.
Instead of indulging a sense of grievance, Mandela emerged from his decades of imprisonment, much of it in solitary confinement, with a self-restraint and a mindfulness that gave him the insight and the courage to work with his jailers to chart a careful and delicate path to a new democratic, politically integrated South Africa. He set an example for and informed peace processes throughout the world, including in Northern Ireland.
The political and communication skills with which Mandela led the new democracy as president did much to displace the lazy stereotypical notions which many had of African leaders, not least in the manner of his leaving the presidency and securing a transition to Mbeki.
Far from becoming the political and economic basket case that many had predicted, a notion the leaders of apartheid had peddled, South Africa became an example of peaceful political transformation. It is a country with enduring problems but with a stable and inclusive political system within which to seek to resolve them.
One of Mandela’s greatest lessons was patience. He delicately managed the political and economic expectations of his people. The task for South Africa after his passing will be to contain the frustrations of its people when now they will have only the memory of his example to follow, although that itself is a powerful legacy.
Those of us outside of South Africa should try and find time over the coming days to sit down with those who matter to us to watch the coverage of the various services that are planned in South Africa to say goodbye to Mandela. They will no doubt be as memorable as many previous Mandela moments. It is particularly important that our children absorb some of the coverage and some of the significance of his passing so that they too can inherit the Mandela message of forgiveness and reconciliation.