Originally posted on RightsNI Blog
Jonathan Shapiro, South Africa’s political cartoonist famously known as Zapiro, perhaps best captured the mood and legacy surrounding Mandela’s passing (original here).
As aliens from outer space look towards planet earth and see the face of Mandela they remark: “Whatever it is, it’s transformed their planet”. Signified by the caption of the cartoon Mandela: He Changed the World, his legacy extends not only to South Africa and its people but to the whole world. Indeed, as tributes across the world pour in (see the Nelson Mandela tribute site); and with approximately 90 heads of state attending his memorial accompanied with extensive media coverage we get a glimpse of just how far-reaching his influence extended. Described byDesmond Tutu as a ‘moral colossus’; by Barack Obama as a man ‘who bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice’ and who ‘embodied the promise that human beings – and countries – can change for the better’ and by others as a unifier, a giant among men and a true African hero, there will hardly be a soul on the planet who cannot say how Mandela’s life has inspired them and given them hope.
This period of mourning and celebration is a moment in time in which we, as individuals and a global community, need to pause and reflect on his life and monumental legacy. Tribute after tribute we hear with deep respect, gratitude and admiration the powerful influence he had on promoting peace, reconciliation, justice, freedom, liberation, equality, forgiveness and the list goes on. So, it is certainly no coincidence that his memorial service should take place on International Human Rights Day – significant indeed!
I, myself, never met Madiba, but as a South African growing up in the country’s transitional years, I was privileged to experience the fruit of his transformational leadership. In particular, what stands out for me is that despite the extreme suffering he went through, a suffering none of us can ever begin to fathom, he stood by his principles and walked out of a hell with no bitterness. Where we expected revenge and retribution he brought restoration, reconciliation and forgiveness; where we expected anger and hate he brought love and kindness.
As I continue in my personal reflection on the life of this “giant in history” and the reaction of overwhelming love and sadness the world has had towards his passing I am left pondering what it was about Mandela that made him to be the man he was and exert the influence he did. If we want to bring the change we say we are working for then the legacy we need to be taking from him is about how he was able to do this? What was it about this man that seemed to defy expectation and in fact uphold the values we all politic about? Was it a matter of personal faith? Or, perhaps it was due to a deep spirituality?
I certainly don’t have the answers but one thing that is sure is he was able to view humans as humans – not as racial, religious or national categories – but as humans. In this way, he seemed able to transcend the boxes with which we define each other and promote one over the other. He had a sense of humanity’s connectedness and inter-dependence with one another, understanding that if one pillar of humanity falls we all fall. Rather than looking at our world through individualistic eyes that is all about me and my needs, he saw it through collective eyes through which one’s well-being depends on the well-being of others and the society as a whole. Perhaps therein lays the challenge: to begin developing a profound sense of our connectedness with all humanity and not simply those who are part of our group. In understanding this, maybe we too can begin to adopt some of his values and become the people, the change-makers, our communities and societies need.
The danger at the moment is that Mandela is being transformed into somewhat of a mythical figure and revered as a ‘secular saint’. Whilst Mandela in this mythical form is significant and much needed as he inspires each of us to be the best we can be, the danger is that he becomes untouchable, irreproducible, unreachable and written off as ‘one of kind’ – a person no one else could ever hope to be. So, we need to remember that underneath the mythical figure is Mandela the man.
To remember that Mandela was a man is to remember that Mandela was a human being just like any of us, faced having to make the same choices, and even tougher choices, each of us have to make. The point is that, as a human being, if he could bring and embody the transformation as peace and human rights practitioners we are all striving for, then so can we.
In conclusion, let me reiterate the words of the South African President, Jacob Zuma, in his Address to the Nation on the Departure of Former President Nelson Mandela:
“This is indeed the moment of our deepest sorrow. Yet it must also be the moment of our greatest determination. A determination to live as Madiba has lived, to strive as Madiba has strived and to not rest until we have realised his vision of a truly united South Africa, a peaceful and prosperous Africa, and a better world.”