EDITORIAL - Mandela: icon of the ages

Published: Sunday | December 8, 2013 Comments 0

In his eulogy to Nelson Mandela, President Barack Obama borrowed an 1865 remark from Edward M. Stanton, Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war, when the American Civil War leader died from an assassin's bullet.

"Now, he belongs to the ages," Stanton said of his fallen president.

There can be little contention that Mr Mandela, who died last Thursday at 95, like Abraham Lincoln, truly belongs to the ages.

Mr Mandela, of course, would have contested any claim of himself, as Stanton declared of Lincoln, as "being the most perfect ruler the world has ever seen".

Indeed, Mr Mandela made it clear that he was no saint, "unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying".

And that is the essence of a man who the world mourns and his essential message that will transcend his time into the ages. By trying to do what is right and just and decent, Nelson Mandela, while he may have sinned, became more than himself: saint almost.

In the circumstances, it could be easy to forget that Mr Mandela's mission was, fundamentally, earthly and as practically political as it was moral.

He and his African National Congress (ANC) insisted that black South Africans were entitled to the basic human and economic rights, in a democratic society, which were enjoyed by minority whites under the morally corrupt system of apartheid.

They challenged apartheid through political and legal action and, at times, the force of arms. For that, Mr Mandela, who became the symbol of the struggle, spent many years in jail: 27.

In the end, apartheid buckled from global pressure, internal opposition, its long-term economic illogic, and the moral bankruptcy of the system. Thus, the opportunity for Mr Mandela to demonstrate why he belongs to the ages.


In prison, Nelson Mandela became a symbol, an almost mythical figure. Liberated, he again became human, having to be engaged in political action.

He astutely managed this transition.

In neighbouring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has squandered the moral authority of being the wronged party in a political system that shared many of the characteristics of South Africa's apartheid.

On the other hand, Mr Mandela, the foresighted politician, appreciated the likelihood of his country's economic collapse of white capital flight in the aftermath of the transition to democracy, and, inevitably, black rule. He conceived of an inclusive, multiracial country.

Indeed, he displayed no personal bitterness towards his former jailers; to those white South Africans who colluded with, or remained silent on, apartheid and benefited from the system. It must have required the exercise of much of his personal prestige and moral authority for Mr Mandela to convince some of his comrades that this was the right course - practical and moral.

But more than declaring the virtues of healing and reconciliation, Mr Mandela, by his acts, epitomised their merits. This is an often and more arduous, but more certain route, to South Africa's destiny of a democratic society in which all its citizens are the same before the law and have equal access to its resources. After two decades, this, clearly, remains a work in progress.

But Nelson Mandela, by his selflessness, humanity and astute engagement of politics, demonstrated what is possible when practical activity is morally engaged.

There is perhaps a lesson for Jamaica in this.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.

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