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Bookending the 20th Century: South Africa’s gifts to Humanity

December 6th, 2013

In ancient Rome, the passing of great leaders would be marked by their elevation to the status of gods.  While religion has moved on, the death of Nelson Mandela will no doubt see an equivalent secular process – and rightly so.  In captivity, his name motivated a movement; in office, it symbolised unity; in retirement, it became iconic; in death, the transformation to legendary status will become complete.

Few men, and fewer women, reach such heights.  To do so requires not only great achievement in deeds but the ability to inspire beyond death.  Washington, Ghandi and Churchill have already made that transition; Mandela is almost certainly set to join them.  In doing so, a little of the true person is lost in the formation of the legend – but then these modern gods were well aware of the symbolic potency of their image during life (and indeed, helped shape them), as well as of the sacrifices that came with such iconic status.

Remarkably, for a relatively small country, South Africa produced two of the truly great figures of the 20th century, and for much the same reasons, even if the earlier is now rather unjustly forgotten.  Mandela’s greatness lay not only in his moral leadership of the opposition to the oppression of apartheid (even if in absentia for much of that fight), but even more so in how he won without succumbing to bitterness and how, after winning that battle, he used his status to bind and unite rather than to impose a different oppression.

Likewise, nearly a century earlier, another South African, Jan Christian Smuts, used similar vision, empathy and leadership to bring his people to accept a settlement of reconciliation – though in his case from a position of their having been defeated – both after the Boer War and in the formation of the Union of South Africa.

The nature of both men meant they would inevitably outgrow their country and become global leaders: Smuts was a leading voice of internationalism for four decades, being intimately involved with the creation of both the League of Nations and the United Nations amongst many other achievements; Mandela became the conscience of, and example to, a continent and a generation.

No man is perfect, and of course criticisms can be levelled: both, despite serving well into their seventies, never really prepared adequately for a handover and both relied excessively on their individual leadership.  In Smuts’ case, that resulted in his defeat to Malan in the 1948 election and hence the introduction of apartheid (even though Malan won a 12% smaller vote share than Smuts’ party – and we think Britain’s FPTP field is biased!); in Mandela’s, successive ANC administrations have struggled with corruption.

South Africa, a medium-sized and young country, has already given more than its fair share of gifts to humanity.  Bookending the 20th century stand the two greatest.  Perhaps in a world of instant mass communication and intrusive reporting, trivialities will prevent such greatness ever again being attained.  If so, let us pay tribute to Nelson Mandela, the last mortal to enter the modern Pantheon.

David Herdson