Africans respect old age. In the case of Nelson Mandela, that respect has long since moved to reverence. Understandably. At 90 today, the South African elder statesmen has achieved nearly twice the average lifespan of a Zimbabwean, and almost three decades more than that of the continent as a whole. That is a measure of the challenge that faces Africa today. But it is also a reminder of how long and how great a journey its most revered figure has made.
Given his rare prestige, there is always the temptation to look to a man above the battle to sort out the conflicts on the bloodied ground below, whether in Zimbabwe or elsewhere, by the sheer authority of his presence. People thought the same of Gandhi at the time of Indian partition.
It was to ask too much of the Indian sage, as it is of Mandela. The world needs heroes, or at any rate men such as Mandela, who hold out the hope that there is a better way of conducting relationships. As much by character as persuasion, he managed to effect a peaceful transition of power between races that has no parallel anywhere else in the modern age.
His example raised the issues of race and power to what seemed – and still seems – a different plane. But that cannot substitute for the hard graft of politics to make Africa a safer and more prosperous place. Zimbabwe, Somalia, Congo and Nigeria are problems that must be solved by the leaders of today, not by gods who can wave a wand to stop the struggle.
At 90, Mandela deserves all the plaudits he is garnering. He also deserves the privacy and quiet of old age.