A giant of our time

"It always seems impossible until it's done." - Nelson Mandela

Madiba is no more. We have lost a giant of our time whose death impoverishes us all. Africa’s towering world statesman of the 20th Century, a man whose life straddled and embodied the continent’s extraordinary struggle and transition from colonial rule to democracy and his own country’s shaking off of the obscenity of apartheid, had managed both to inspire and reassure several generations of allies and former enemies.

His courage, clarity of moral purpose, discipline and selflessness in 27 jail years, and his later-revealed warmth and generosity endeared him uniquely around the world and right across the political spectrum. A man who gave his brutalised, downtrodden people, and then millions internationally, the sense that through the non-racialism of his cherished African National Congress (ANC), now marking its centenary, in the words of Thomas Paine, "we have it in our power to begin the world again". And that it would be a better place, and that their better place could be a place for all.

“Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another,” he told his 1964 sabotage trial. “The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.” He was as good as his word – the South African constitution is a model to the democratic world.


It remains one of the most enduring and eloquent speeches from the dock, a moving apologia pro vita sua for those like him who had turned only when all else failed to armed struggle for "an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be... an ideal for which I am prepared to die." Indeed, there is a political irony in his death. Mandela had suffered from lung problems since contracting TB during his 27-year imprisonment on Robben Island. He lived for the ideal of a multiracial South Africa, and achieved it. But in the end, in his 95th year, the long arm of apartheid finally took him.

Spirit of the revolution
For many of South Africa's people Mandela was not only the source of their revolution, but its spirit and living guarantor. In the new state's early days, for many whites, including Afrikaners still today, it would be his moral authority and commitment to inclusiveness and compromise that was the reassurance which made the difference between grudging acceptance of majority rule or fighting on to the bitter but inevitable end. Or packing up and leaving.

Even in retirement – he has been largely absent from public life since 2004 – successive generations of the country's political leaders, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, have found it essential to lean, sometimes uncomfortably, on Mandela's moral authority, even as they diluted his political legacy.

It’s a long shadow to walk in – Mbeki resented being eclipsed by it and by Mandela’s iconic status, particularly the reverential awe he inspired among whites. “He called this attitude ‘Mandela exceptionalism’ when he was being polite,” Mbeki biographer Mark Gevisser writes, and “the ‘one good native’ syndrome when he was not.”

Blueprint for peace
History, our own included, reminds us that liberation movements do not easily make the transition to stable democracy or manage the process of reconciliation and forgiveness. Mandela's insistence that "if you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner," represents the essence of a universal template for peace processes, as relevant in Northern Ireland as potentially in Palestine and elsewhere.

Part of that was a deal with the ruling white minority that in truth left many of its privileges largely in place – the jobs, the land and the industrial wealth – a deal that made the disenfranchised majority wait, and still wait, patiently for their reparations, a deal that minimised the flight of white capital and expertise. It is difficult, however, to imagine any other leader who could have sold such a generous compromise and sharing so completely to his own supporters after long and bitter years of struggle.

The ANC, always the broadest of coalitions, ranging from communists to black business leaders and African nationalists, and encompassing white liberals, impoverished shanty town dwellers, and opportunists, has struggled to maintain the idealism of its opposition years. Corruption and patronage are endemic while the party increasingly appears to speak largely for the rising black middle class.

But it is telling testimony to Mandela’s enduring ideas and moral leadership that in a country still wracked by social tensions and inequality, crime and poverty, one-in-four unemployment, and an apartheid of rich and poor, a country of gated communities, democracy is rooted firmly in the veldt, and orderly transfers of political power are the unquestioned norm. Mandela’s revolution, however, remains unfinished.