Anyone who remembers the early days of 1990, when Mandela toured the country as a free man after 27 years, speaking to huge crowds of people, will recall how his words, and his mere presence, gave us all hope for a united, just and peaceful South Africa.
Those who had suffered under apartheid found a leader who understood their hurt and anger, who shared their hopes for a better life, and who had the vision to lead them, through years of difficult negotiations, to the moment of freedom in April 1994. Equally, those who had benefited from apartheid, and who feared some kind of backlash, had their hopes for a place in the new, free South Africa renewed and strengthened. To hope is more than merely to wish for something. To have real hope is to be reassured, to shake off anxiety, to feel confident that one’s dreams and desires will be realised. It is a rare person who can inspire such feelings in a nation; rarer still when he or she inspires those feelings in people on both sides of the huge divides that characterised South Africa before 1994. But that is exactly what Madiba did for us – through his bigness of heart, his vision, his steadfastness, he allowed us all to hope.
Looking back, it is easy to see that much of what we hoped for then has not come to pass. We have become side-tracked, many people’s lives have not improved at all, and self-advancement and corruption dominate much of public life. There are many, and complex, reasons for this, no doubt, but part of the reason is certainly that those who succeeded Mandela were cut from poorer cloth; they lacked his vision and his big-heartedness, his discipline and self-assurance. When we compare the more muted hopes we have today with the confident, joyful hope we felt 20 years ago, let us acknowledge the man who embodied that hope and gave it voice.
Love & harmony
And finally, love. We do not usually associate political leadership with the idea of love. Courage, determination, vision, passion, all these will be found in a good politician, but love is somehow too gentle, too soft a virtue to be applied to someone who has risen to the top in the hard, rough world of politics. Perhaps, sadly, this is because so few professional politicians, instead of being motivated by love, are driven by ambition, power-lust and ego.
What sent Mandela to jail, ultimately, was love – a love for all the people of South Africa which would not allow him to sit back and quietly pursue his promising career as a lawyer. At the end of his speech from the dock, he said famously: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
Selflessness and self-sacrifice are surely two of the hallmarks of love. To be prepared – really prepared, not just as a matter of cheap, rabble-rousing rhetoric – to die for the good of others is, as we know, the highest form of love. To walk away from the comforts of family, wealth, and worldly success, knowing that harsh imprisonment, at the very least, awaits you, is an act of love. But Madiba’s capacity for love manifested itself in other, more personal, ways as well. When people speak of ‘the Madiba magic’ they are referring to his warmth, his broad smile, the evident delight he took in the company of children, his ability to make everyone he met feel welcome and important. It was surely love, and the desire for harmony that flows from love, that took him off to the conservative Afrikaner stronghold of Orania in 1995 to visit the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the apartheid-era Prime Minister. Likewise love that caused him to form deep friendships with some of his jailers and with their families. Indeed, all over South Africa and across the world, there are people who have been made to feel special by the little things Madiba did for them or said to them, not because there was a vote to be won or a political point to be made, but simply because it was in his nature to radiate love. Many pronouncements, the obituaries that have been written, and history have had the final say about his political successes and failures, and about the policies and strategies he pursued as liberation leader and as President. But these are all ultimately transient things, soon replaced, soon forgotten. Faith, hope and love, on the other hand, as St Paul tells us, are ‘things that last’; and it is these that will form Madiba’s most lasting legacy.