In modern times words like ‘iconic’ or ‘living legend’ or dare I say ‘hero’ are bandied about far too often. The superlatives we use for those who have passed make it difficult to differentiate and mark appropriately the passing of someone of the calibre and standing of Nelson Mandela. How do we acknowledge the contribution this man made to the world if all the accolades we could use have been used for others whose light shone pale by comparison to his?
Instead of doing that, I want to look at the greatest of Nelson Mandela’s legacies. He was a man who, like all men, had human strengths and human frailties. His greatest gift without which his legacy would have been so much less was surely that of forgiveness. How many men—or women, for that matter—would have finished a 27-year prison term of hard labour and deprivation by forgiving their jailers?
How many people would have been capable of the forgiveness and generosity of spirit that Mandela showed to those who held him and other South Africans as second-class human beings? His focus on the dignity of the human spirit over its thirst for revenge is the great inspiration he left the world. In this way he ranks with Gandhi as one of the true heroes of the modern age. Both Gandhi and Mandela responded to violence with peace and to anger with understanding.
How often in our modern society do we glorify anger, violence and revenge? Our movies and television heroes do not respond to attack with humble and considerate reason. Instead, we often see our community fed a diet of anger and aggression. Our heroes are those who are most aggressive. It is the Mandelas and Gandhis of this world who are our true heroes.
Nelson Mandela is a far better role model that any fake superhero or movie star. His vision for South Africa post apartheid was not to reverse the positions of power as a vengeful leader might have sought to do—and, as history shows, that has often been repeated—instead, his rainbow nation was designed to encompass all; to lift all, not to tread down some.
Of course such lofty ambition is not easily achieved and to say that there are no problems remaining in South Africa would be false. There is still much to be done in terms of standards of living, law and order and social harmony.
It will fall to a new generation of leaders to finally finish the dream that Nelson Mandela began. Only time will tell if this new group of leaders is up to the task. However, such achievement would be possible only because they truly stand on the shoulders of a giant.