Why you should care

Because the world just lost one of its greatest leaders ever. 

Nelson Mandela was a colossus.

As the great-grandson of the ruler of the Thembu people in what is now South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, Mandela was given the proper first name Rolihlahla, or “troublemaker.” And if this meant a certain propensity for gumming up the traditional machinations of business as usual — particularly the evil practice of apartheid — then it was particularly well-chosen.

Boxing

In a boxing pose, circa 1950

Even the sports he chose as a younger man — long-distance running and boxing — point to an obstinate refusal to subordinate his will for anything. Or to anything. It was this drive that allowed him to survive 27 years in prison, and then negotiate his release and help establish a democracy in South Africa on his own terms.

It led to his climb from agitator to prisoner to president and eventually the South African éminence grise who oversaw his country’s transition from pre- to post-modernity. In the process, he won a Nobel Peace Prize and became a beloved global leader. When he died on Thursday at age 95, the world immediately went into mourning.

As he wrote in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom:

I had no epiphany, no single revelation, no moment of truth. But a steady accumulation of a thousand slights, a thousand indignities, a thousand unremembered moments, produced in me an anger, a rebelliousness, a desire to fight the system that imprisoned my people…There was no particular day on which I said, ‘from henceforth I will devote myself to the liberation of my people.’

Other world leaders, their luster dulled by familiar stumbles — whether financial imbroglios or just not leaving the stage before we tired of them — could have learned a lesson from the convivial ease that marked Mandela’s time with us. It was a comfort created in the crucible of difficult times and places, and an understanding that that, too, was going to pass.

He had a sense of mission, purpose and predestination, without the hysteria born of fanaticism. It was just a quiet acceptance of the fact that good would make right, and truth and justice would reign.

Back of Mandela with fist up talking to crowd

Source Ira Wyman/Sygma/Corbis

Of course things never turn out the way you hope, and no one will hold up the South Africa today as a paragon of hope and prosperity. But thanks to Mandela, there was a tectonic shift in how that part of the world worked, bettering its people’s lives in ways both large and small. Mandela’s will and ability to see beyond the present was instrumental in that happening, and his legacy will live on in ways we can only begin to understand.

So, the king is dead. Long live the king.

Comment