Sometimes when a significant public figure dies, even, perhaps especially, when that death comes as no surprise and may, indeed, be considered some form of release there is a natural tendency to wonder if the blanket media coverage that invariably follows is altogether appropriate or even seemly. Is it not all too much? A man is merely a man; a woman merely a woman.
Sometimes too, it is natural to react to the endless parade of tributes and wonder how genuine they really are. Is there not something vainglorious about them? Is there not something a little ridiculous about all these attempts to cling to the coat-tails of greatness?
Perhaps sometimes there is. But not tonight.
For more than two hours now I have been watching the coverage of the news of Nelson Mandela’s death. For more than two hours I have watched my Twitter and Facebook feeds devoted to a single subject as never before. And none of it feels too much at all. I want to be reminded of Mandela’s greatest or most generous or most poignant remarks. I want to see how tomorrow’s newspapers will treat his passing. A lot is talked about social media and most of it is rot but this is a moment, a rare moment, in which it makes the world seem a smaller, warmer, place. A better place as well.
So the cumulative effect has been heartening, even moving. What might in other circumstances seem me-too vaingloriousness is, tonight, better understood as a demonstration of how one man – yes, a mere man but not just that either – can touch and inspire millions of people. And there is something touching about this. Something wondrous about how Mandela’s death, no great shock though it was, has prompted such an outpouring of feeling.
We lapse into cynicism all too easily and sometimes cynicism is an appropriate response to the daily degradations of ordinary politics. But there are other times – and this is one – in which cynicism is best put aside. If we can – and we do – recognise greatness in other fields of human endeavour we should be prepared to countenance the idea it can exist in politics too. Few may be admitted to the pantheon but the pantheon exists.
Nelson Mandela was a great man.
The greatest man of my lifetime. No-one else these past forty years has had such an impact. There were many heroes who helped tear down the Berlin Wall but none of them as individuals played as decisive or transformational role as Mandela did in South Africa.
Many great pieces will be written today and in the days to come by people who knew much more about Mandela and South Africa or who have much greater standing to write about Mandela than me. They will help deepen our awareness of Mandela’s greatness.
It is a greatness to savour because, in the end, it is a greatness that rested on something for which people the world over yearn: hope. Hope that mankind can forge a better future freed from the horrors of its past. Hope that the world can become a better place. Hope that the better angels of our nature may yet prevail.
So it seemed entirely appropriate that in his own tribute to Mandela President Barack Obama echoed the words of Edwin Stanton, US Secretary of War, on the death of the greatest of all American presidents. Like Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela now belongs to the ages.
The comparison with Lincoln is neither far-fetched nor misplaced. That was the level of Mandela’s greatness. There is no need to measure these champions against one another; it merely suffices to say that neither man is insulted by the comparison.
Rightly, much of the emphasis tonight has been on Mandela’s extraordinary powers of empathy and forgiveness. But he could never have been in a position to demonstrate that rich humanity had he not been a fighter first.
The fighting was important for without the fighting, both before he went to prison and during the long years of his captivity, there could have been no peace. In this too comparisons with Lincoln are far from fatuous.
Their situations and the challenges they faced were, of course, very different. But they had this in common: like Abraham Lincoln Nelson Mandela saved his country. Like Lincoln, it is impossible to imagine anyone else matching his achievements. He could not cure his country any more than Lincoln could cure his but he did something more important: he gave it a chance to cure itself. And to do so in freedom. But in neither instance was this opportunity preordained or guaranteed.
He was not a saint (as he often said himself) and, like any man, he made any number of mistakes. But there is something pointless about measuring a life such as this as though it were a matter of mere accountancy, replete with entries in columns marked “profit” and “loss”.
Mandela’s life was marked by courage and stoicism and grace. He made us feel better about ourselves not because we could emulate his example – we could not for we would surely be found wanting – but because he gave us an idea of what humanity could aspire to be.
And so it seems to me that of the many appropriate responses to Mandela’s death not the least fitting is the conclusion to Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
A tough challenge to meet, both personally and collectively, but one worth aspiring towards. It is in our hands now.
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