One more Mandela miracle

A Global diary

In death as in life, Nelson Mandela is inspirational. After days of sad, yet joyous, mourning throughout South Africa and beyond, the father of the Rainbow Nation was returned to the soil of Qunu. It was a farewell to be hailed. 

But, if it had been a long walk to freedom, the final journey to immortality was over in a moment. Mandela’s success in winning hearts and minds globally, of uniting black and white, young and old, and delivering democracy to his people, assures his place in the pantheon of universal humanitarian heroes. 

Iconologists fall out over who was greatest, but in 50 years who would better him? John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Princess Diana touched hearts and minds for different reasons, but violent deaths sealed their place in history. 

Mother Teresa was tormented by doubts about faith. Mikhail Gorbachev bravely dismantled the Soviet Union tyranny, but he was a repentant oppressor, not the oppressed. 

Lech Wałęsa, the workers’ champion, fired a revolution in Poland; Václav Havel was the intellectual spirit of the Czechs; the Dalai Lama fights on for Tibet from exile; Aung San Suu Kyi scents victory as Burma inches towards democracy; Pakistan’s inspirational Malala Yousafzai, aged 16, bears a torch of hope for women and young people everywhere. But we have to go back to Mahatma Gandhi, assassinated in 1948, to find a Colossus to match Mandela. 

Gandhi’s political career began in South Africa, after his eviction from the firstclass carriage of a train at Maritzburg for being an Indian. He developed non-violent resistance to defend South Africa’s Indian community. His African legacy inspired Mandela. Both were lawyers. Both were unifiers. Both had an infinite forgiveness. Both won the respect of their opponents. Both had simple dignity and selflessness. Both were martyrs to their cause. 

Arguably, Mandela was the more successful. India won independence, but was partitioned. Gandhi’s dream of one harmonious nation living in peace remained unfulfilled. Mandela, after 27 years in jail, actually delivered. He fought apartheid from within the walls of Robben Island jail. He succeeded in unifying his country, creating the Rainbow Nation, without the predicted bloodbath. He did it by force of will and the demonstration of magnanimity on a monumental scale that even Gandhi would have applauded. 

But they were strikingly different in style. While Gandhi was a saintly, dhoti-wearing ascetic of almost intimidating forbearance, humility and godlike self-discipline – sharing his celibate bed with young women to demonstrate his chastity – Mandela was the avuncular, beaming saviour in the adopted Springboks’ shirt, hugely approachable and with disarming charm, who embraced his enemies and held hands with the Spice Girls. 

He laughed off sainthood. “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying,” he said. His genius was that he was the common man with the common touch: believable, human – and flawed. Perhaps he was even wrong about his own saintliness. Pope Francis, under whose pontificate an army of saints comes marching in, says they are not supermen, but ordinary people who follow God with all their heart. Mandela ticks those boxes, and more. His jail at Robben Island is already a grim shrine, albeit with fairy lights around the gates. 

He has already achieved one miracle: the transformation of South Africa from a racist state to democracy, without bitterness or bloodshed. Mandela was the glue that held it all together, reassuring blacks fearing a sell-out and whites afraid of violent anarchy. 

In a country still riven by inequality, it could unravel without him. South Africa needs a second miracle to ensure it does not. That falls now to Mandela’s ‘children’: those who lined the streets to say farewell. They owe it to him to finish the job he started. Not to award him an eternal legacy, but so he can finally rest in peace. 

Only then will Nelson Mandela be truly free.


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