Nelson Mandela - The man of the 20th century

Down the centuries, each era of human development has shown an extraordinary capacity to produce leaders of great stature. The passing of Nelson Mandela has taken from the South African people, and the world at large, one of the greatest figures of this or any age.

There can be little doubt that the former president and Nobel Peace prize winner, affectionately known as the Father of South Africa and endearingly called by his clan name Madiba, will long be remembered by millions of people around the world and in the pages of history as the man of the 20th century.

By any yardstick, his was an amazing life. As a young lawyer and fearless revolutionary, he spearheaded the struggle for justice and freedom for South Africa’s black population. He championed the cause of people who had been brutalised, systematically reduced to third-class citizenship, deprived of education, consigned to ramshackle shanty towns and relegated to abject poverty in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

Above all, he lived in a world of realpolitik, and realised to a far greater degree than most of his compatriots that South Africa’s future would depend on whether blacks and whites could live and work together.

Assuming hands-on leadership of the powerful African National Congress party, he effectively dismantled the shackles of apartheid and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.

On his election as president in the following year, he set about building a multi-racial democracy in place of the heinous apartheid regime which had gained white dominance by armed force, trampling over the rights of the majority black community.

During the 14 years since he stepped down as president in 1999, Mr Mandela was a highly effective ambassador for his country. Despite ill-health, he was deeply involved in the campaign against HIV/Aids, as well as peace negotiations in the Congo, Burundi, and other troubled countries in Africa. He also helped South Africa secure the hosting of the 2010 football World Cup.

After 27 years in a damp prison cell, six of them in solitary confinement which he once described as the most difficult time of his life, he was finally freed from the notorious Robben Island in 1990. His release was secured with the aid of a global protest movement ranging from an international sport boycott to the action by a group of Dublin women known as the Dunnes Stores strikers. They became heroes of the anti-apartheid movement by refusing to handle oranges imported from South Africa.

His links with Ireland were deepened when he attended the opening ceremony of the 2003 Special Olympics in Dublin, where he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with another symbol of black resurgence, boxing icon Muhammad Ali. Fond memories of the former president were uppermost in the minds of a great many people last weekend when the tenth anniversary of that event was celebrated.

He had a keen understanding of what it means when limits are set on a person’s capacity to live a full life. Commenting on his long incarceration, he once said: “In prison, you come face to face with time. There is nothing more terrifying.”

His extraordinary charisma and ready smile spoke volumes for Mr Mandela’s personal qualities. After almost three decades on the prison island where his health deteriorated under the harsh regime — the precursor of respiratory conditions that would eventually play a part in his death — he refused to condemn his jailors. Displaying an astonishing lack of bitterness, he shook their hands when he paid a return visit to the island, this time as a country’s first black president.

The true extent to which old scars have healed in South Africa was seen when Mr Mandela’s health began to deteriorate in June. The affection in which he was held by all facets of South African society became clear as white Afrikaans, a people who had once been his implacable enemy, laid flowers outside the hospital.

Displaying the resilience which had characterised his remarkable life, his condition improved somewhat and he celebrated his 95th birthday on July 18 to an outpouring of global esteem and approbation. Thankfully, the internal family dispute which had erupted in the final weeks of the Mandela era have been put aside.

With South Africa now in mourning, the nation is preparing itself to bid a last farewell to the great man who taught its people to live together. Black and white alike, they are now bracing themselves for life without their Father. The world is praying that the Mandela legacy, which has had such powerful global appeal, will help a united South Africa not only to endure in his memory, but go from strength to strength as a leader among the nations of Africa.

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