The English language cannot proffer one more, fresh superlative to encapsulate the extraordinary character and near-mythic stature of the now-departed Nelson Mandela.
That’s why the words, ‘courage’, ‘human’, ‘giant’, ‘wisdom’, ‘achievement’, ‘justice’, ‘dignity’ and ‘freedom’ have framed an oddly collegial plagiarism-free zone fixed to the front pages of every major newspaper in the world since the great man’s death, at the age of 95, last week.
“What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human,” Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, said of his predecessor. “We saw in him what we seek in ourselves. Fellow South Africans, Nelson Mandela brought us together and it is together that we will bid him farewell.”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called him “a giant for justice and a down-to-earth human inspiration. Many around the world were greatly influenced by his selfless struggle for human dignity, equality and freedom. He touched our lives in deeply personal ways.”
Said UK Prime Minister David Cameron: “A great light has gone out in the world.” Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama – never at a loss for words in such a circumstance (indeed, any circumstances) – bloviated, “He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages. He took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.”
It fell to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to remind the world that it has “lost one of its great moral leaders and statesmen” and that this nation, which conferred honorary citizenship on Mr. Mandela in 2001, grieves with global community today.
The tributes, both heartfelt and fulsome, are, course, justified. By example and political fiat, South Africa’s first black president led his country out of the darkness that was apartheid.
But it says something about the malleability of the human mind that such sentiments were not universally shared. Shall we forget the ritual abuse much of the western world once heaped on this now venerated freedom-fighter whose reputation rivals Gandhi’s and Mother Theresa’s?
Reporting for The Independent, back in 1996, Anthony Bevins and Michael Streeter culled the official House of Commons record (Hansard) in the UK and revealed a patchwork of decidedly imprudent remarks about the then-imprisoned political activist.
So said MP John Carlisle, prior to a screening of the Free Nelson Mandela concert in 1990: “This hero worship is very much misplaced.”
Three years prior to that, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opined authoritatively, “The African National Congress (Mr. Mandela’s party) is a typical terrorist organisation. . .Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”
Meanwhile, in the mid 1990s, MP Terry Dicks wondered, “How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?” His colleague, MP Teddy Taylor asserted, “Nelson Mandela should be shot.”
Even today, as Prime Minister Harper insists that the African statesman’s “enduring legacy for his country, and the world, is the example he set through his own ‘long walk to freedom’ and that “with grace and humility, he modeled how peoples can transform their own times and in doing so, their own lives,” at least one member of his own party begs to differ.
According to a CBC report last week, “Conservative MP Rob Anders is clinging to his criticism of Nelson Mandela, remaining opposed to the man credited with bringing down South Africa’s apartheid system. . .Anders was the only MP to oppose giving the former South African president honorary Canadian citizenship in 2001. He denied the House unanimous consent for a motion on the matter, but MPs later voted and passed it anyway.”
Mr. Anders referred reporters to a Freedom Centre blog post by David Horowitz, who wrote last week, “if a leader should be judged by his works, the country Mandela left behind is an indictment of his political career, not an achievement worthy of praise – let alone the unhinged adoration he is currently receiving across the political spectrum.”
Of course, a good deal of the Nelson Mandela legend was his ability and determination to transform himself – regardless of both the accolades and criticisms that dogged his every move – into a crucial agent of change for millions of his countrymen and women.
That, perhaps, is the most important superlative to remember.