So at last the shouting and the hubbub is beginning to abate. The single most significant figure in South Africa’s history has been buried with dignity and the lessons of his life are slowly being absorbed by the more thoughtful citizens of this country and the world. Right wing conspiracy addicts believe Mandela was nothing but a Marxist undercover agent while left wing ideologues bemoaned his lack of commitment to the class struggle. Celebrities and politicians to varying degrees attempted to appropriate as much of his glory as possible and the sycophancy industry was in full flood. But none of that is important.
Mandela’s contribution to the ANC arm of the liberation struggle, his steadying influence in the remarkable transition from an oppressive ethnic autocracy to a functioning liberal democracy, his symbolic and vitally important renunciation of formal power after serving a single term in office to fulfill his destiny as the ultimate reconciliator and unifier and, finally, the dignity and poignancy of his waning years in the bosom of his family and the nation are the common coinage of popular perception.
We all bring ourselves to our engagement with the times and passing of this heroic figure, and what I find significant is not his ideological commitments, which were relatively few and thankfully broad, nor even the political role he played – vital though that was to the process of national liberation.
No… For me and many others Mandela epitomised to the ultimate degree the fundamental human virtues of personal courage and commitment, a profound sense of basic justice, a deep empathy and respect for the humanity of others and the ability to subdue and transcend his own all too human reactions in order to achieve the greater goal. These virtues could only be properly developed in the furnace of personal trial and pain. And we can see in his long life, his slow evolution from fun-loving and mischievous youth to identification with his people’s pain and oppression, his emergence as a stalwart of the struggle where his gifts of leadership, steadfastness, commonsense and balance were vital to the movement, and finally, tempered by prison, failure and hardship, his re-emergence once again armed with a core of steel sheathed in a scabbard of tolerance, wisdom and an all-encompassing humanity.
Mandela is one of the very few great heroes, perhaps the greatest, of the modern age. He displayed all the virtues to the ultimate degree while never losing his basic humanity, humility and love of life and laughter. And, in an ironic twist, he epitomised the virtues the colonialist poet Kipling recommended to Milner in his poem, IF.
“…If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,..“
Lesser men will attempt to appropriate Mandela to bolster their narrow political aims or add luster to their personal agendas. But for the rest of us, whatever our politics and ethnic affiliations or religious beliefs, Mandela represented the very best of humanity and the possibility that, given enormous effort and tenacity, we can all transcend the constraints of our birth and personal limitations to achieve whatever measure of greatness which lies dormant within each of us.
If Mandela’s life holds a message for nations as well as for individuals, I hope that South Africa and my other home, Israel, will draw the lessons latent in Mandela’s journey to meet and embrace his destiny.