Nelson Mandela: Prometheus unbound
His achievement was to make his country fit for ordinary men and women to live in freedom
Though he went into prison when most of the world’s population today was very young or not yet born, he never, after his re-emergence, seemed anachronistic. This is not just because he had remained steadfast in his adherence to timeless values, but also because he always carried within him the sense of being at the beginning of something rather than at the end. He was seeking to embody a new society rather than merely preside over the death of an old one.
Even in this, though, he was exemplary. The idea of starting again from scratch, of obliterating the past, may seem an attractive one but too often in the history of revolutions it has been a terrifying prelude to fanaticism. The apocalyptic concept of Year Zero, of a new history, a new epoch, has been accompanied by a literal obliteration – of the people who don’t belong in the new world. Mandela did something of enormous significance with this idea. He embodied a new start, the creation of a new nation. The new South Africa’s Year Zero did indeed have its origin in Mandela’s momentous walk from prison. But it was a start that did not demand the obliteration either of the past or of the people who had shaped it. Mandela’s new nation started from where it was, not where it should be, with a complex patchwork, not just of racial and ethnic histories, but of guilt and hatred, of prejudice and transcendence.
He reminded us in this that the word “confinement” has a double sense in the English language. It means both imprisonment and the period of waiting before the birth of a new child. Mandela’s confinement, which his captors understood only in the first sense, was also the time in which a new country was preparing to be born. Like any birth, the joy has been accompanied by immense pain. But something new was nonetheless brought into the world. “Unhappy the land”, said the proverb, “that has no heroes.”
Unhappy the land, replied Bertolt Brecht, that needs heroes. Mandela’s heroism grew to match the scale of his land’s unhappiness. It grew out of savagery and was shaped in reaction to inhumanity. It was moulded by the four walls of a prison cell. In that sense, it is a quality we would be happy not to need. Even as we salute this hero, we should also remember that his life’s work was dedicated to making this kind of heroism redundant, to abolish the need from which it grows, to make his country a land fit, not for heroes, but for the courage and dignity of ordinary men and women living their daily lives in peace and freedom.
A version of this essay was included in a volume, From Freedom to the Future, presented to Nelson Mandela on his 85th birthday