“If you want to make peace with your enemy, work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” – Nelson Mandela
Speaking to my mum the morning after Mandela’s death, she told me about seeing him speak in Islamabad while heavily pregnant with me, and how she was moved to tears not just by his words but by the effect he had on those who had come to hear him speak. This, I believe, is Mandela’s legacy: the way he managed to capture the imagination of the world. It is manifest in the in the international outpouring of grief: leaders from a range of nations, espousing a multiplicity of ideologies, have all expressed their grief over his death. Obama, Putin, Jinping, Hollande, Merkel, Assad and Cameron, to name a few, have all made statements all praising Mandela as an inspiration to all who fight for freedom and justice, flying their national flags at half-mast on government buildings across the world.
Mandela’s role in the fight against South African apartheid is well known: his 27 years in jail is documented in books, films and documentaries. The poignancy of his suffering and the importance of his cause set the stage for the revolutionary nature of his subsequent actions, which are most striking.
My mum was brought up in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She witnessed a brutal civil war for independence and the eventual rise of dictator Robert Mugabe, who continues to bring the country to its knees. This is what Mandela sought to avoid. He was more than a freedom fighter – he was a force for reconciliation who was prepared to forgive his subjugators in order to focus on rebuilding a nation he was proud to be a part of. His sharing of the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with president de Klerk was testament to Mandela’s capacity for understanding and his realization that it would do no good to remain mired in the past. Iconic moments such as the rugby World Cup final of 1995 – an event made famous by its cinematographic depiction, the 2009 film Invictus – were all part of Mandela’s concerted effort to encourage for South Africans of all races to collaborate and build a country they could all be proud of. Mandela deftly avoided civil war in a situation that could have easily led to it, thereby spearheading the reconstruction of a divided nation that now leads the African economies and is ranked by the World Bank as an upper middle income.
While neighbouring Zimbabwe has crumbled, with life expectancies among the lowest in the world compounded by widespread poverty and corruption, South Africa has flourished. This is not to say that it is without its problems: there are issues in the distribution of wealth and there remain significant areas of poverty. But the differences between the neighbouring countries are striking, emblematic differences between Mandela and Mugabe. Mugabe sought to punish those who had oppressed him and his people for so long; Mandela sought to forgive them, and teach them the means for tolerance and a united nation. This forgiveness was his most extraordinary act – it was contrary to base instinct, representative of his wisdom and prescience. These attributes were what cemented him as iconic to those who fight for their freedom. He inspired all those who saw, heard or knew him, not through words of hate but through the ability to move forward.
Mandela’s greatest strength was his ability to inspire, and he will be remembered for more than just his actions – remarkable as they were – but for the passionate conviction with which he carried them out and his contagious joie de vivre in the face of unimaginable opposition. The world has seen many freedom fighters, but Mandela did not fight – he forgave, and that is what makes him truly inspirational.