There is probably no person whose death would have brought a more global response than that of Nelson Mandela, who passed away last week. From the US to the UK, Cuba to China, the outpouring of tributes to the former South African leader and anti-apartheid activist have been of unprecedented levels and was reflected in his memorial ceremony, attended by no less than ninety current heads of state. Indeed, Obama’s hand shaking at the event with Cuba’s Raul Castro, two countries with no diplomatic ties since 1961, shows that even in death, Mandela has brought people together. It is not just politicians though who’ve had their say, for the modern world has allowed the general public to share their memories and how he has been a source of inspiration. Nelson Mandela then was virtually unique among recent world leaders in that he was a source of love and admiration not only from those across the political spectrum but also from those with little interest in politics at all. So what was it about the man that united views so?
Well, for current UK politicians, it is important to remember that the debate over Mandela’s incarceration was reaching its crescendo as they were becoming politically active. In this way then, Mandela’s fight for freedom in South Africa was part of what underpinned their political beginnings. His actions therefore were a valuable source of inspiration for our current leaders, both to those who supported his plight and those who originally did not. The global influence of Mandela though comes not only from his years after prison but those before it, for he also served as a hero for those with more revolutionary politics. To them, Mandela’s defiance in the face of authoritarian oppression and his determination to overthrow the very system that had for decades defined South Africa, offered a glimpse to them of how change could be achieved in a way that could make the world a better place. His politics of prioritising social justice and eradicating poverty, which he stated as a manmade concept, also attracted not only those seeking radical reform of the global order, but also moderates across the political spectrum, who saw in him their fight for greater fairness around the world.
Mandela though was more than a revolutionary, for many also respected him due to his firm belief in democracy and freedom. His role in the drafting of the South African constitution and the decision he took to step down after only one term showed a firm belief in democracy and a determination to lead by example. In him sacrificing all to ensure fellow South Africans lived to be free in their own nation, Mandela also showcased the power of freedom where there is none. This resonated particularly in places like America, where they too had to struggle for basic rights due to the colour of their skin. In his eulogy to Mandela, Obama called him the last freedom fighter of the 20th century. That is a fitting tribute, for like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., Mandela was one of those people who through the 20th century sought to break away from the old ways and deliver freedoms that many still benefit from to this day.
Respect for Mandela came too not only from his politics and the values he prioritised, but in the manner in which he conducted politics, particularly in his later years. Rather than the brash politics that is a common sight in most world governments, Mandela always carried himself with dignity to any formal occasion, bringing an aura with him that even the smoothest political operators could not hope to replicate. A subtle operator, Mandela was a breed of politician who preferred to listen rather than speak and was adept of making a quiet word in the right place rather than a bellow to no one in particular. Mandela then, on top of everything else, came to embody the elder statesman, the model upon which politicians could shape themselves regardless of their ideology. With his politics having so many faces, it’s hardly surprising so many world leaders found something to be inspired by.
Mandela’s politics were an important part of him and it is vital when we think of Mandela they are not overlooked, not only as a source of inspiration but also to understand what made the man he was. However, it is inevitable that this is mostly overshadowed by his incredible human story, a story that made him so relatable even to those uninterested in politics. A determined believer in acting for what was right, Mandela showed he was prepared to sacrifice his own life for the good of generations of other black South Africans, famously stating in his court case that freedom was a concept he was prepared to die for. Such conviction saw him jailed for 27 years, an incomprehensible amount of time behind bars and all because he wanted black South Africans to be treated as citizens in their own country.
The story of a man who gave away so many of his best years to right the wrongs of apartheid would be extraordinary enough to make him a global icon, but the manner in which he acted upon his release takes the tale to a new level. Having spent nearly three decades in jail, one might think the angry militant who entered Robben Island would return consumed by bitterness and anger at those who wronged him. Yet the man who came out was far wiser and instead offered peace and dignity to those who had worked so hard to deny it him. Kindness, he reasoned, was the way to beat them. To show this level of forgiveness and reconciliation created Mandela as a representation of the amazing capacity of the human spirit that people, not just politicians, could relate to and aspire towards. For though forgiveness is something we would like to think we could all do, many of us are unable to let go, to forgive the grudges. Yet, here was this man who was prepared to forgive, focusing on the future rather than the past. That’s something we can all be inspired by, be we a politico or not.
So what makes Mandela’s story and ideas cross borders and political ideology? Quite simply, because his extraordinary life offers something for everyone to relate to and be inspired by. For Mandela was a revolutionary, a statesman, a humanitarian, a campaigner, a father figure, a fighter for change and an optimist determined to see the very best in people. He also showed defiance, compassion, determination, conviction, humility, forgiveness and, according to those who met him, love to all regardless of their status. And he did all this with a smile and a flamboyant shirt. Through 95 amazing years on this earth, Mandela offers something for people the world over to relate to which they in turn can use to strengthen themselves and help aspire to be the true person or leader they wish to be. To be all that to so many people made him unique, hence why in his passing, we will not see his kind again.
Backbench Foreign Secretary