From the outburst in the media, you might have been excused for thinking that Nelson Mandela’s death was sudden and unexpected. On the other hand, when he was allowed to return home three months ago to continue his fight against a lung infection, it was against a background of debate among his family and supporters about where the definition of dead lay with regard to tribal law. I remember turning to my daughter at the time and discussing with her if that didn’t mean that it was basically only medical and mechanical intervention that was keeping him alive at that point.
That means that there’s been three months for the filed obituaries to be dusted off, spruced up and a common narrative agreed, and in this case the common consensus seems to be that Nelson Mandela was a living saint. The hagiographies have come thick and fast as a result, often from people with a documented history of active dislike or opposition to him at various points in his life and career. No one likes to speak ill of the dead – and that certainly isn’t my intention here either, before we hare off on that path – and it is always easy to be generous to someone in death.
Let’s be clear – Nelson Mandela had a long career, that did involve violence, but that also embraced a fundamental change in persona and personal narrative that allowed him to effect enormous and lasting change in a nation that sorely needed leadership and hope. No one becomes a senior politician and statesman by being a fluffy and nice person, but once you have achieved that position, the appearance of being fluffy and nice is a very effective tool for managing people and their expectations. Crucially, once he had become the elected leader of his nation he didn’t outstay his welcome, but retired into the background, where he continued to be an influential figure for the rest of his life.
This then is what I find myself admiring – the legacy of hope and self-determination that he was able to push, shove, pull and occasionally kick into place. He played his role consummately with care and attention to detail, and was able to inspire the people around him. An interesting quote I heard this weekend was from someone saying that “when you were with him, you were inspired to be a better person.” That’s one hell of an effect to have on people at the best of times – and when you consider that many of these quotes are coming from people who would have been meeting him with specific agendas at those moments, well you just have to stand in admiration.
Other commentators have been pointing at the inconsistencies shown in tributes by people like Tory politicians who denounced him at the time as a Communist terrorist, but this just seems to me to be missing the point of political stances. Politicians deal with what is in front of them. By its very nature these days it tends to be short term in focus. Back then, a debate about the definition of terrorism and freedom fighting was especially charged for the UK by the intensity of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. These days, there is a tacit acknowledgement that conflict is rarely black and white – so perhaps that too can be, with tongue slightly in cheek, laid as a success at Nelson Mandela’s feet.