Tributes this week poured for former South African leader Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday evening aged 95. Figures from around the world, from The Queen to Bill Clinton to the Chinese premier Ki Keqiang, praised a man who has become synonymous with integrity and moral courage. Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said Mandela had “made us understand that we can change the world”, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu called him “the undisputed icon of forgiveness and reconciliation”.
Mandela has moved, over the course of his life, from a figure of fierce controversy to a Nobel Peace Prize Winner and internationally celebrated figure. Having joined the African National Congress (ANC) Youth League as a young lawyer in the 1940s he fought – sometimes advocating violent methods – against the inequality and bloodshed of the country’s Apartheid system. He was imprisoned for his actions opposing that system in 1964, yet by the time of his release in 1990 had become a tremendously influential campaigner for peace. He went on to be elected the country’s first black President four years later, after Apartheid was finally lifted.
For those who doubt that progress can happen – or who are cynical about the ability of individuals to create change – Mandela’s successes stand as a towering rebuff. His leadership singularly shaped South Africa and help the country overcome obstacles which many thought were insurmountable. Moreover, the changes he brought about were done in a way which sought to deal with and then move beyond past grievances – the country’s Truth and Rehabilitation Commission, perhaps the best case of restorative justice the world has ever seen, being a perfect example.
Some have pointed this week to David Cameron’s attitudes to Nelson Mandela when he was a student. They say that Cameron – who on Friday said a “great light” had gone out in the world – had as a younger man wanted to see Mandela executed. From what I have read, these claims have been seriously overstated, but either way I do not believe that making political capital off Mandela’s death fits with the way in which he lived his life.
Having said that, we must not forget that the universal high esteem in which Mandela is now held in is a comparatively new development. As recently as the 1980s many frontbench British politicians and national newspapers were sceptical and in some cases openly hostile towards him and the ANC. Thatcherite MP Teddy Taylor said Mandela “should be shot” and the News of the World called the ANC a “communist-style black dictatorship”.
There will be many different interpretations of Mandela’s legacy over the coming months, but for me the unqualified praise given to him over the weekend by politicians across parties and in newspapers of all leanings is a legacy in itself. The arguments he was putting forward in the 1960s – for equal rights and an end to racial prejudice – are now indisputable. His great achievement was not just in making them, but in doing so in a way which created unity rather than forging division.