We humans can generate unspeakable evil. Our species’ redeeming grace, however, is its equal ability to produce people who prove that no evil is too great to overcome. Of such individuals, none throughout the blood-soaked 20th century was more remarkable or more indelible than Nelson Mandela.
Apartheid in South Africa was a terrible evil. Yet not only did Mr Mandela bring about the dismantling of a system that he rightly described as a moral genocide, and lay the foundations of a new country. He turned that dismantling into a triumph of forgiveness and peaceful reconciliation that may be unparalleled in modern human history. Only a very, very few bear comparison with him; Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King – leaders who, in a violent world, accomplished what they did by non-violent means. Like them he inspired, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, the better angels of our nature. Like them, he became a secular saint, a moral conscience for his times.
Mr Mandela was not perfect. His temper could be fierce, and he managed his family life a good deal less successfully than he did his country. But his failings were tiny when set against his virtues. Yes, the “pedestal of hope” on which he placed the new South Africa is wobbling. Vast disparities of wealth remain, the country is plagued by poverty and violence, and the political system has become ingrown and corrupt. But it remains the emerging giant of the continent.
Just think what might have happened had there not been a Mandela. Sooner or later, apartheid, like Nazism or Soviet communism, would have disappeared. But its passing might so easily have led to a racial inferno, begetting hatreds lasting generations. Thanks to Nelson Mandela, that did not happen. For that alone he will occupy an unmatched place in the history not just of his native South Africa, but of the world.