For many 20-somethings, Nelson Mandela’s recent passing is significant simply because he is a historic figure. He is venerated by those we value, and he is therefore meaningful to us. His time as a political activist predates my own birth by nearly 40 years; his tenure as South Africa’s President occurred before my 11th birthday. What allows Mandela to escape the questionable aspects of his personal history to transcend time and geography?
Most Martlet readers are familiar only with Mandela the benevolent statesman, a quiet paragon of magnanimity. Of course, he was those things, but this disregards other facets of his often contradictory personality. Mandela was a great admirer of British political institutions but also an amateur Marxist philosopher and communist sympathizer (at least in his youth). He was a natural negotiator and compromiser, yet advocated violent struggle as a final solution to an unreceptive government. Perhaps Mandela is so universally regarded because of his ability to seamlessly integrate his personal shortcomings into his greater vision, rather than polemicize in spite of his flaws.
Nonetheless, coming to terms with Mandela as an activist is a complicated exercise, since we belong to a society that vehemently condemns the use of violence. We should draw a line between appreciating an individual’s contributions to humanity and aligning oneself with that individual’s way of thinking in terms of every detail. The latter is a morally questionable practice, no matter how admirable the subject. One need only avoid misdeeds in the future, when attempting to achieve similar results without the same ill effects. Unfortunately, some may feel the need to extend a blanket condemnation.
Ultimately, few women and men hold a legitimate claim to a moral legacy. For all his foibles and complexities, Mandela was still a hero, a man who promoted equality and practiced it in his own life. By acting in the face of injustice and leading by example, heroes inspire hope.
But, we also need to acknowledge that he was simply a man. By his own accounts, Mandela was neither a shining intellect nor a saint, and his loyalty to his cause could sometimes cloud his judgement. This, however, is why Mandela’s passing is still significant even to those with no connection to the circumstances surrounding Mandela: we recognize greatness when we see it, particularly when we’re reminded that it’s within everyone’s grasp—including our own.