I’m by no means an expert on Nelson Mandela or South Africa. But my sense is that a very great man — a very surprisingly great man – lies close to death right now. (Some claim that he actually died several days ago but that the announcement is being delayed for various reasons.)
Long out of the public limelight, he’s already essentially lost to us. Still, his death, whether it occurs in the next few hours or within a few months – he’s nearly ninety-five; the end cannot be very far away – will be a sad and historic milestone. The world will be much poorer without him. We all know that it has always happened and will always happen, but the loss of truly great people is a tragedy, no matter how long they live. Death hits us especially hard, seems particularly obscene, when it takes indispensable people from us. And Nelson Mandela has been such an indispensable person.
When apartheid ended in South Africa and the country’s long-oppressed black-majority population came to power, there might have been a bloodbath. Such violence wouldn’t have been surprising. There might at least have been a generation or two, as in far too many other African countries, of vengeance-fueled oppression in reverse, as well as tribal corruption, destructive “African socialism,” a cult of the leader, tyranny.
Instead, after years of turmoil, South Africa made a remarkably peaceful and neat transition. And an enormous share of the credit for this goes to Nelson Mandela. (If you haven’t seen the remarkable and inspiring Clint Eastwood film Invictus, starring Matt Damon and, more centrally, Morgan Freeman as a superb Mandela, you should do so.) South Africa was unbelievably fortunate, because Nelson Mandela wasn’t an Idi Amin, a Robert Mugabe, or a Sekou Toure, but one of the great ones.
And he needn’t have been. After his twenty-seven years in prison, he might have been expected to be angry, to seek retribution, to assume power as a tool for racial and individual revenge. That wouldn’t have been justified, but it would have been understandable. But he didn’t.
Posted from Phoenix, Arizona