What We Lost With Mandela's Passing
Well, it's been pretty much wall-to-wall Mandela this week, as it should be.
There was, of course, the usual pre-recorded pabulum and vox pop interviews with, it seemed, everyone who met the man, even if only once. But there was something more, something that remained mostly unsaid (quite a feat for the 24/7 media cycle), something lurking in the millions of words, flickering in the background of the endless talking heads trying to assess his monumental achievement.
The inchoate thought behind all the noise was that the man, even in his death, was too big, too great, too... well, too good, for the moment. That Nelson Mandela was a leader from a prior age, a man shaped at a time when leadership stood for things we no longer expect from those who call themselves leaders, things like bravery, honesty and integrity.
I think it's true. Nelson Mandela took the presidency of South Africa in 1994, just as the era of Reagan, Thatcher, Deng Xiaoping and Gorbachev was coming to a close. Whether you agreed with the policies of the main players or not, Mandela stepped from his imprisonment in Victor Verster Prison on to the world stage immediately after one of the most seismic epochs of global leadership in modern times.
Yet even in that pantheon, in that time, Mandela was a colossus. He possessed a moral authority that set him apart, but was never aloof. He was the epitome of a role model, leading by deed, not word (he was never the most dynamic of public speakers, and rarely used emotional manipulation to make a point).
Mandela's personal history - the sheer length of time during which he endured dreadful mistreatment at the hands of a cruel, racist regime - was so transparently awful that no one would have begrudged him a sense of bitterness or hatred toward his enemies, and yet he never once exhibited either.
To achieve his goal of a united, non-apartheid South Africa, Mandela worked tirelessly with FW de Klerk, the leader of the regime that had imprisoned him for almost 20 years, and killed many of his friends and colleagues. (Like Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland, de Klerk only late in life moved from tribalism to transformative leadership, but like them, when he did so, he fundamentally altered his country's history - and future - forever.)
Nelson Mandela was far from perfect. His family life in particular bears painful scrutiny. But we live in a time when bipartisanship is a bad word, a time when bravery, honesty and integrity are no longer expected of our leaders. We live in a time when Nelson Mandela's life is less an example to us than it is a rebuke.
I don't believe in heroes, and I reject the notion that all leadership must be somehow heroic. But when I call to mind the names of those we term 'leaders' today (take a moment, and do the same yourself), then I grieve the loss not just of Nelson Mandela, but, I fear, the loss, for now, of the expectation that we will see his like again anytime soon.
I hope I'm wrong.
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