Mr M. died at the grand old age of 95 years. That is a very good age for anyone - especially for anyone who has suffered the harsh conditions of his much documented imprisonment. There is of course the possibility that the lack of available excesses during those years somehow made him fitter and has perversely contributed to his longevity, but I don't think it's very important either way. What's undeniable is that he has lived a long, fruitful, distinguished, highly accomplished and ultimately extraordinary life. So extraordinary has been his journey, he has already been all but canonized by the media, and world leaders have flocked (in a rather unseemly clamour to be associated with the name) to be seen at his memorial. The speeches are unashamedly gushing about the man and his achievements.
I don't know enough about the man or his life to make any kind of judgement about the kind of person he was in private. I don't know what the real person was like, however the lack of dissenters to the established view of the man would seem to indicate that there is substance to the already mythical charisma and persuasive personality that the world has come to recognize. There is no doubt that he was instrumental - if not absolutely necessary - in the overthrow of an evil system of oppressive government, and the rebirth of a nation. Without his influence and shrewd political senses, I doubt that South Africa would have travelled the road upon which it is now embarked.
NM's achievements are documented and applauded all around the globe, yet I am uncomfortable with the increasingly (at least, to me) polished image of a saint-like man who could do no wrong. I am uncomfortable with a kind of mass hysteria which seems to demand that we all verbalize our appreciation of his greatness, and which stamps on anyone who says what I am saying. To say "Hang on a minute, is anybody really THAT perfect?" in this context is akin to jumping out of the trench naked and inviting the paint-ball nerds to open up with automatic weapons. However, I feel it needs saying anyway.
I have a hunch that someone such as NM, a man of apparent integrity who was shrewd, perceptive and highly skilled, would prefer not to be regarded as flawless, but more as a relatively normal human being who did things a certain way - a way that worked. I have a feeling that he would rather be thought of as someone who achieved what he did as a result of hard work, insight, skill and determination rather than because he was a good guy. His own words on the subject (from his second autobiography 'Conversations with Myself') are:
"One issue that deeply worried me in prison was the false image I unwittingly projected to the outside world; of being regarded as a saint.
"I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying."
The world is after all replete with versions of Mandela; there are thousands, if not millions of men and women who share his ideals, his intelligence and his leadership qualities. They do not share his fame or his recognition by the world; his rise to prominence was slow but media-supported as the western world realized too late what the South African racist state had been doing to its subjects. His power came from the fact that his face and name became an international badge for freedom-seekers and supporters of genuine democracy. His ultimate skill was the successful exploitation - even while still incarcerated - of that world-wide fame and the power that it bought.
Subsequently he demonstrated those oh-so-rare qualities for a politician; an ego with a sense of perspective, integrity, and the ability to recognize when it was time to move on. In those regards alone he demonstrated the unusual qualities of the best of the world's politicians; his fortune was to be in the world's eye when he did so.
I don't believe his death is a tragedy (and this is the statement that drew the ire of other people); he had a long and remarkably effective life, he lived to a great age and was surrounded by his loved ones in his latter years. He enjoyed the admiration and respect of millions (perhaps billions) and achieved so very much. By any standards, he lived one heck of a life - and I think that warrants celebration rather than sadness.
I'd be utterly shocked if Mandela was indeed a one-off; instead I believe that he was one of a certain breed of human; the person who enters politics and pursues political power for only the right reasons. I cannot believe that he is alone in this, and while I acknowledge that his death is an appropriate time for his legacy to be recognized and for his remarkable life to be celebrated, perhaps what we as a society could do to best honour his example and his memory would be to seek out those who share his passion for justice and equality. These people are out there in our communities just waiting to be noticed - I wonder if we have the means to bring them forward and explore their ideas, their passion and their leadership qualities? I certainly hope so, for the sake of my children's generation.