Nelson Mandela: The Global Icon Goes Home

Tribute to Nelson Mandela in Barcelona, Spain, on Oct. 24, 2012. (Photo: Toniflap,

The death of Nelson Mandela has gripped the global community. Worldwide, heads of governments, celebrities, and ordinary men and women mourn his death. After a long illness, the first multi-racial elected president of South Africa has gone home. Why is the global community mourning the death of Mandela? The resounding answer is that we are unlikely to bear witness to the likes of Madiba (his revered clan name) for a long time. He left behind multiple legacies for people of every hue, religious persuasion, geographical location and ideology. I briefly discuss some of Mandela's most enduring legacies.

The moral political barometer of our time

No political leader in recent memory brought transparent, moral clarity to a political cause like Mandela. In Mandela's mind, apartheid to be destroyed in the interest of both its purveyors and victims—no quibbles and no compromises. He spent 27 years proving this basic point, despite more than 15 years of teasers from apartheid leaders and urgings from moral rationalizers to settle for "limited" freedom. When the history of this era is told, Mandela's accomplishments will be recognized as an apogee.   

The power of complete, public forgiveness and reconciliation

By publicly forgiving his state-sponsored oppressors and tormentors, Mandela helped millions of his fellow South Africans and hundreds of millions of men and women worldwide living under the oppression of vengeance and retaliation to break free. In the end, the legacy of forgiveness and genuine reconciliation may become Mandela's greatest gift to the world.

The fleeting embrace of power and its accouterments

One of the most profound weaknesses of great statesmen and women of history is their dance with power and fame. The Mandela who came out of prison in 1990, became president of South Africa in 1994, retired in 1999 and lived out the rest of his life as a global celebrity always portrayed the image of a worldly man, wary of unbridled adulation and sycophancy. He resisted calls to serve another term of office with a firm understanding that his role was that of a transitional president, healer-in-chief and national cheerleader.    

The need for courageous, strategic leaders

Mandela had the uncanny ability to make difficult decisions in dire circumstances. He was a first-class political tactician and organizer. He knew when to negotiate, when to retreat, and how to bypass seemingly immovable political obstacles. When he decided to begin exploratory discussion with the apartheid regime, none of his close associates in prison knew in advance. Between 1990 and 1993, as violent factional fighting was claiming thousands of lives, Mandela made the strategic, courageous decision to keep negotiations with the apartheid regime alive—tense as they were, and despite objections from key lieutenants. Only a man of Mandela's stature could have kept his fragile ANC coalition on course during this precarious period of political brinksmanship.

Human rights abuses and inequities must be fought to standstill

Mandela was consistent in his fight for human rights and against inequities in every form: gender, political, economic and environmental. He passionately believed that rich and poor nations should fight jointly for a world free of human rights abuses and inequities. He also believed that leaders of poor nations should run transparent, accountable and law-abiding governments, as the poor also have a very important role in organizing and mobilizing to effect political and economic change. His 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, shared with then South African President F. W. de Klerk, cemented his long-term work on human rights and the fight against inequities.

Dedicated peacemaker

Throughout his presidency and years after he left office, Mandela tirelessly devoted himself to peacemaking in Burundi, Rwanda, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya and Uganda. He intervened openly and sometimes discreetly to calm frayed nerves and broker peace between warring elites of fledgling democracies.  

Strong foundation for democracy

South Africa's four parliamentary elections since 1994 have strengthened democracy and established the ballot box as the ultimate arbiter of political disputes. The 2014 national election will provide opportunities for first-generation South Africans born after majority rule to begin reshaping the political landscape of the strongest national economy in Africa.

Mandela never subscribed to the notion of sainthood. He was a mortal. The failure of his marriage to his second wife, Winnie Mandela, a significant hero of the anti-apartheid struggle, was particularly jarring. To deal with the real possibility of capital flight by white minority middle class, his cautious approach to amelioration of the dire housing, water, sanitation, health and education needs of poor South Africans during his presidency continues to plague successive governments.

Inmate number 46664, nearly 50 years after incarceration for opposing racial segregation and oppression, has gone home as the global icon of our time. A man of strong conviction and powerful ideas, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela's work and actions changed the world. He left indelible footprints in the sands of time that will continue to inspire millions of people around the world.

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