With the death of Nelson Mandela, we have lost one of the few genuinely world-changing figures of our time. For although seen narrowly, Mandela’s principal achievement – and lifelong goal – was to bring freedom to his own country, his ideals, his language, and the principles for which he stood inspired countless millions far from South Africa, and continued to do so – and this is a key point – in new terrains and with new dreams after South Africa had thrown off the yoke of apartheid.
Along the way, Mandela demonstrated – as did Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he will forever be linked in a pantheon of greatness – an essential duality, one that combined the softer virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation with a determined rigor and toughness. He would not have done what he was able to do, would not have been able to move as many as he did, without putting those characteristics together.
That truth is vital to remember for those of us who take our cue from his call in London’s Trafalgar Square, in February 2005, to be the “great generation” that can end poverty, injustice, and gross inequality. Mandela’s almost superhuman ability to reconcile with his jailers, to rise above the past, to embrace those who would once have shunned him – as he did at the Rugby World Cup final in 1995 – remain some of the most moving demonstrations of the human spirit that the age, or any age, has seen. But the point of the Trafalgar Square speech was not to warm the cockles of the heart; it was to act. “Like poverty and apartheid,” Mandela said, “poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
Because he spent more than 25 years from 1964 to 1990 in prison, from where he could only inspire by invisible, reported, example, it is easy to forget what a man of action Mandela was – both in the years before the Rivonia trial in 1964, and again, crucially, in the negotiations for the end of apartheid and the coming of democracy after he was released. As accounts of Mandela’s life attest, he could be hardheaded and demanding as well as relaxed and generous.
I met him only once, when I was one of a small group who had breakfast with him in New York in the 1990s. I can remember thinking, at first, how warm and outgoing he was; he flirted shamelessly, reducing one of the most distinguished women in America to a giddy girlishness. But when the questions started, the back, as it were, stiffened; the cadences got more terse; the language of command replaced that of affectionate repartee. One realized pretty quickly: this was not a man that anyone ever wanted to mess with.
As the world mourns Mandela’s passing, it is right that we remember and cherish all that he taught us of the better angels of our nature – that forgiveness is a gift to those who forgive as much as to those who are forgiven; that we don’t have much time on earth, so there’s little point wasting it on perpetual enmities. But I hope we remember, too, the Mandela of toughness, resolve, command, and action. In 2005 he challenged us all to “rise up” and fight poverty, injustice, and gross inequality. Now is the time to stand with him.
Image by Greg Marinovich/Sygma/Corbis