Nelson Mandela’s greatness came from the humanity that he radiated

Throughout everything he remained his own man

Share
Related Topics

It was not just his courage and capacity to inspire that endeared Nelson Mandela to so many. Despite being one of the world’s most prominent statesmen – perhaps the most revered of his age – he retained his extraordinary humanity.

When he was with you, you had all his attention, whether you were a President, a mere child, a hotel porter, a cleaner, a waiter or a junior staff member. And he never forgot a friend.

His greatness came from the humanity that he radiated, his common touch, humbleness, self-deprecation, sense of mischief and dignity. Prison could have embittered, adulation could have gone to his head, and egotism could have triumphed. But none of this happened.

Remarkably, his reputation survived and indeed prospered, even under the fierce spotlight of 24-hour  news, over-hype and journalistic spin, where (uniquely) he remained untarnished and undiminished, rising above the modern media beast's unrivalled capacity for building up then knocking down. Where most political careers end in failure or opprobrium, Mandela’s continued to soar, long after he had stepped down as President. 

Throughout everything, Nelson Mandela remained his own man, not seduced by the trappings of office nor deluded by the adulation of admirers, always friendly and approachable. And that is why he is the icon of icons – and maybe always will be.

His capacity for forgiveness is what made him the absolutely critical figure, first during secret negotiations in the late 1980s from prison with the Afrikaner Nationalist Government, and then after his release.

He was acutely concerned at how close South Africa had come to civil war. In July 1996 Mandela was still reminding the African National Congress at a private gathering of struggle veterans: “You mustn’t compromise your principles, but you mustn’t humiliate the opposition. No one is more dangerous than one who is humiliate.” 

Nobody else could have delivered such a healing Presidency in such a bitterly divided country with so much vicious nastiness in its history, still lurking in the shadows of the transition and for years afterwards.

A cathartic piece of Mandela magic was in 1995 when, dressed in the very Springbok jersey and cap blacks used to see as a symbol of apartheid, he presented the rugby world cup to the victorious South African captain, Francois Pienaar. The 62,000 overwhelmingly white Afrikaans spectators, tears streaming, saluted “our President”. 

In 1996, when Mandela addressed both houses of the British Parliament in its medieval Westminster Hall, the former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher bustled her way to a good seat. “The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation…Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land,” she had said just 10 years before, specifically denouncing him as a “terrorist”. But like all his other former opponents, Mandela forgave her too.

The South Africa he bequeathed has emerged from behind its ugly white veil and proudly taken its rightful place as a leading, perhaps the leading, African state. But overcoming the horrendous legacy of apartheid and achieving a more equal society is inevitably taking much, much longer than many South Africans, as well as the rest of the world, had expected.

A high crime rate affects whites (whereas under apartheid it took place primarily in the black townships). The deliberate apartheid policy of ensuring that black South Africans were prevented from acquiring the education necessary to play their part in the workforce of a modern industrialised society left three quarters of the population lacking the necessary skills, with black unemployment now around 40 per cent, and unlikely to be substantially reduced until the new young black generation has obtained those skills.        

Although a new black elite has done well, black workers have not benefited as much as they should have done from the country’s growth and stability since democracy came in 1994. South Africa is ranked high in both the UN’s measure of attractiveness for foreign direct investment and the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, with strong financial institutions, banks, stock market, and a good corporate governance and regulatory framework. But it is also has a bigger gap between rich and poor than almost any other country.

The ANC of Mandela inspired the world. But there has since been a disturbing collapse in the values and integrity he epitomised. In his last years, he hated the corrosive spread of corruption amongst ANC leaders locally and nationally. Far too many have abandoned his legacy, causing deep disillusion as well as widespread and sometimes daily local ‘service delivery’ protests and strikes. 

The contrast with the still basic decency, dedication and principles of the majority of ANC members is stark.  So is the fact that the bulk of its policies are still based upon Mandela’s original values. Indeed for those seeking a social democratic agenda in a market economy which presents an alternative to the global gip of neo liberalism, the ANC’s programme is just that. 

Perhaps because there is mythology as well as reality about the 'Mandela’s miracle' which made the transition from brutal apartheid to hopeful rainbow democracy, there is a tendency today to see South Africa in far too simplistic – almost black and white – terms. 

It is compared to a standard far higher than for example we apply to ourselves in Britain – yet it has much more deeply rooted apartheid heritage of social inequality and economic division.

There is currently pressure to erode Mandela’s legacy, but there are also countervailing pressures from within the ANC and crucially outside, a strong opposition, critical media and a network independent civil society groups. Mandela’s towering stature and vision will nevertheless remain the yardstick by which South Africa’s future will be measured, and his successors inevitably judged.

Peter Hain MP is a former anti-apartheid leader and Labour Cabinet Minister. He is the author of a biography of Nelson Mandela, ‘Mandela’

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Qualified Primary Teaching Assistant

£64 - £73 per day + Competitive rates based on experience : Randstad Education...

Primary KS2 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Primary NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Piper Ryan Randall leads a pro-Scottish independence rally in the suburbs of Edinburgh  

i Editor's Letter: Britain survives, but change is afoot

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
Some believe that David Cameron is to blame for allowing Alex Salmond a referendum  

Scottish referendum: So how about the English now being given a chance to split from England?

Mark Steel
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam