I seriously doubt there’s anything I can offer on the passing of Nelson Mandela that the bevvy of world leaders, members of the African National Congress, his family, celebrities, commentators, press agents, newspeople, Nobel Prize commissions, etc. haven’t already covered concerning the former South African president and anti-apartheid activist. He’s on a short list of people whose presence in the 20th century made the world a better place, and though his “public life” ended after he left the presidency in 1999—a position to which he rose as the first black politician ever to hold office in the country, mind you—and continued activist work basically until he was too sick to do it anymore, he was never too far from the greater consciousness, even if it was just someone invoking his name or some famous quote for their own ends. A constant presence.
And then not.
That’s really all there is to it.
When Nelson Mandela took sick over the summer and either was or wasn’t in a vegetative state, I think the world knew what was coming. Whether he was on life support or not, it should say something about the stubbornness of such a man that even though he left the hospital in September and was probably ready to go in June, it was still December 5 before a lung infection finally claimed him. He was one of the most influential and consistently-good leaders in the world. He’d spent 27 years in jail only to come out not bitter, but filled with love for his country and what it could be, and then he went and made it that thing. And still, he wasn’t done when it was supposed to be his time to be done.
You’ve already heard and you’ll continue to hear the hyperbole about his life, about the things he was and the things he did, and rightly so. He led a life worthy of hyperbole. I don’t know how that serves his memory, since no matter how much he was revered he remained a humble man at least in his public persona, but if mourning was about the dead we wouldn’t do it. The ceremony makes us feel better, at least ideally. I don’t know if it’s ever supposed to do anything to actually repair a loss.
And when it comes to a figure like Nelson Mandela, there’s really nothing that’s going to. Few heroes have an international reach, and fewer still put it to any use. You get maybe one—maybe—in every couple generations. Maybe two in a century, and these people work on a global scale and help shape the world in a positive way. That was Nelson Mandela. If you’re waiting around for the next one, you might as well take a seat.
One will come along eventually, though. The circumstances will be different, obviously, and there’s certainly enough injustice to go around, so you never know where they’ll pop up, but inevitably they will, and then they’ll make the rest of humanity feel good about human potential for a while and people will go back to scumbagging each other in short order. It’s nice while it lasts. Unfortunately Nelson Mandela’s time came and went and as good as the best of us are there’s still more to be fixed. Of course, instead of waiting around for some magical person to come and solve all our problems for us, we could internalize the lesson of these important lives and do it ourselves, but yeah, I won’t be holding my breath for that one either.
R.I.P. Nelson Mandela. A rare credit to homo sapiens.