FLASHBACK: Former president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, waves after delivering an address on May 1, 2004 at the Queen’s Park Oval, Port of Spain, during his visit to Trinidad and Tobago. —Photo: Micheal Bruce




 Ask anyone who the two greatest leaders of the 20th century were, and nearly everyone would answer “Mahatma Gandhi” and “Nelson Mandela”. There are other men and women who also achieved greatness but, now that he has died, Mandela’s distinction and distinctiveness shine with even more inspiring clarity.

After ailing with a lung infection for three months, Madiba, as he was affectionately known to South Africans, passed away peacefully yesterday. He was 95 years old.

This alone sets him apart from other great leaders, many of whom were killed by their enemies, including the Mahatma whose entire public life was devoted to the doctrine of non-violence. 

When Mandela was released after 27 years in prison, he focused on reconciling white and black South Africans and so almost single-handedly prevented that nation from descending into chaos and ruin which, given its tormented history, would have been quite understandable. 

To quote from Mandela’s favourite poem, “Invictus” by the British poet William Ernest Henley, “In the fell clutch of circumstance/I have not winced nor cried aloud./Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed.”

That act of leadership confirmed Mandela’s statesmanship and greatness. Most men, after having been imprisoned for 27 years, would have emerged bitter and determined to exact revenge on those who had oppressed his people for decades. Mandela, however, followed the words of the poem: “And yet the menace of the years/Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.” 

Indeed, had Mandela chosen to take the path of retribution, few could have faulted him, for the apartheid regime in South African had long been reviled by most countries. But Mandela understood, as Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe does not, that his country could not survive, let alone thrive, without racial unity and, more importantly, forgiveness. As himself a victim of the apartheid regime, having been effectively deprived of freedom from the age of 46, Mandela’s greatness of spirit was demonstrated by his insistence on truth as the key device for reconciliation. 

Nor was this decision solely impelled by canny politics, although it also was that. But, unlike virtually every other leader in Africa and much of the rest of the world, Mandela demonstrated that power held no temptation for him, since “It matters not how strait the gate,/How charged with punishments the scroll./I am the master of my fate:/I am the captain of my soul.”

Released from prison in 1990, when the apartheid government led by FW de Klerk already knew its days were numbered, Mandela, then 72 years old, was elected president of South Africa four years later. He could have held on to this position until he died, for there was no political opponent who could even come close to defeating him. Instead, he retired in 1999  after one term. And, since he lived for another 14 years, it cannot even be said that this decision was forced by physical or mental infirmity.

This, then, is the bare bones of the man who has been a source of inspiration to millions around the world. Unfortunately, those millions do not include politicians, even within his own nation, who continue to conduct their countries’ affairs primarily on the basis of getting and keeping power. Mandela, a political leader, rose above this. Like Gandhi, his power flowed from him not being bound to it. The words of Invictus were embodied in his character: “Out of the night that covers me,/Black as the Pit from pole to pole,/I thank whatever gods may be/For my unconquerable soul.”

This is why Mandela is the only politician on the planet who was universally admired and who, now that he is gone, will be universally grieved.

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