More than 90 world leaders are in South Africa for commemoration ceremonies in honour of Nelson Mandela, the man who went from prisoner to president armed with nothing more than his conscience, his courage, and a steely resolve to achieve freedom for his people.
It is an almost unprecedented gathering of the great and the good. Guests include Britain’s Prince Charles as well as celebrities such as Bono, Oprah Winfrey, and Naomi Campbell.
However, it is the confluence of the politically powerful that marks Mandela’s extraordinary influence on world affairs. Dozens of foreign heads of state or government are already in the country for a week-long series of tributes and church services.
US president Barack Obama, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and British prime minister David Cameron are among those who will attend a memorial service in his honour today in Johannesburg. Many other heads of state or government will pay their respects at Mandela’s funeral next Sunday in Qunu, the small village in Eastern Cape province where he was born. Among those in or heading to South Africa to pay tribute is our own President Michael D Higgins.
It is expected to be the largest gathering of world leaders in Africa’s history and marks a clear sign of the impact that Mandela had on global affairs.
What was it about the man that has so many powerful people paying tribute in person? Was it is his international political stature?
Hardly. He spent 27 years behind bars, enough to diminish even the most determined political activist.
As well as that, the most powerful nations on earth for years dubbed him a terrorist. During his 27 years behind bars, successive US administrations co-operated with South Africa’s white leaders.
In 1981, when apartheid was still in force, US president Ronald Reagan reiterated his support for the South African government because it was “a country that has stood by us in every war we’ve ever fought”.
Was it Mandela’s military prowess?
Unlikely. Although not always a pacifist, Mandela had the wisdom to recognise that force of arms will only take you so far and that a war of words is always better than the real thing.
Perhaps the real secret of Mandela’s effect on the affairs of nations is simply that he was an honourable man who continued to live an honourable life even when faced with the most extreme brutality.
Though he must have held bitterness, he never voiced it; though he must have felt hate for his oppressors, he never let it deflect him from his path; though he must have experienced great loneliness and despair, he never let either overwhelm him.
Most of all, it was his determination to remake his country as an inclusive democracy that set him apart.
He not only plucked black South Africans from the horrors of apartheid but saved white South Africans from themselves, allowing them to shed a century of guilt and embark on a journey of recreation.
The African-American poet Maya Angelou put it well yesterday, employing a turn of phrase that would not be out of place here: “He never had a cross word to say to anyone,” she said. “Had there been no Mandela, we would have seen blood running in the streets. He showed us how liberating it can be to forgive.”
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