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Nelson Mandela: Man of the People

Image credits: BK
Image credits: BK

Nelson Mandela, former President of the Republic of South Africa, died on the evening of Thursday 5 December. Here, Hannah Butler assesses his impact across the world. 

As news of Nelson Mandela’s death filtered through the population on the evening of Thursday 5 December, scores of South Africans flooded to Johannesburg and Soweto. Amongst the grief, a sense of celebration mingled, prompting reporters to note that even in death Mandela lifted the people’s spirits.

Crowds sang apartheid-era songs and danced before his former Soweto home. In London, tributes were soon being laid on Mandela’s statue in Parliament Square, and in Washington, US President Barack Obama made a solemn appearance at the White House to express the profound influence Mandela had had on his own political life, stating, “He no longer belongs to us – he belongs to the ages”, a sentiment which resonates with the sense of immortality and irreversible influence associated with Nelson Mandela, the South African revolutionary who came to be known as the ‘father of the nation’ and ‘the founding father of democracy’.

Becoming South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994, as well as the country’s first black president, Mandela had already done much to assume his place in the history books not only in South Africa but worldwide. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for sabotage which attempted to overthrow the country’s apartheid government, Mandela remained that government’s prisoner for 27 years, released from the gates of Victor Verster Prison in 1990.

However, the force of Mandela’s impact on the world stems perhaps less from his imprisonment itself that from his immovable resolve and dedication to a cause he felt unbelievably important, to himself and the world around him. In an interview from Robben Island in 1973, Mandela dedicated his lack of pessimism to his never-failing belief in his ideas, iterating that, “I know that my cause will triumph.” This resolve reflected a man certain of his beliefs and their potential to improve the lives of countless people. It also, on the other hand, demonstrated a remarkable trust in the inherent goodness of a world which had until this point treated Mandela with harsh injustice.

Mandela’s belief in the ability of good to overcome hatred and segregation reflected his recognition of a need to look forwards rather than backwards, working towards something better rather than remaining bitter about the past and prolonging hostilities. After his release from imprisonment, he did not shun the country and government which had enforced this on him, instead opening negotiations with President F. W. de Clark, and launching into official talks to end white minority rule. This again displayed Mandela’s extraordinary ability to concentrate not on personal hardships and resentment but focus his attentions on the abolishment of apartheid, thus working to achieve the same goal he iterated in 1963: ‘a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities’. This famous and now immortalised ‘Speech from the Dock’ proved to represent unshakeable resolve and determination. To stand by principles despite the harsh judgement of those in power and the official conclusion that he was wrong to hold these beliefs demonstrates Mandela’s incredible commitment to the establishment of democracy and freedom.

Upon his election as President, Mandela’s formation of a multicultural democracy proved his ability to bring ideas into action he deemed beneficial for the South African people. Announcing ‘courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace’, Mandela advocated forgiveness and reconciliation, qualities he exhibited to a remarkable degree, which proved a remarkable selflessness and ability to suppress feelings of resentment and retaliation for the good of a nation.

Image credits: South Africa The Good News
Image credits: South Africa The Good News

At this early stage it is not possible to fully comprehend what Mandela’s death means for South Africa. Ultimately, his death marks the loss of a man whose extraordinary resolve shaped the country as it is today, and proved capable of overcoming oppression and punishment to end the oppression of countless others. Yet, as Mandela himself stated: “What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead”. The significance of Mandela’s death will therefore manifest itself in his legacy, which is now the task of the current government to uphold, ensuring South Africa’s efforts to end oppression and poverty continue to be recognised as vital priorities.

Current President of South Africa Jacob Zuma’s claim that “Our people have lost a father” reflects a need for the country to now continue its work to abolish oppression, without the guiding force of this monumental and irreplaceable figure. David Cameron’s statement that “Nelson Mandela was not just a hero of our time, but a hero of all time” nevertheless represents a belief that Mandela’s influence will remain long after his death, with the ideals he fought to establish continuing to be upheld.

Nelson Mandela may no longer be a physical presence guiding ideas and practices, yet his legacy will almost certainly live on in the ideals and beliefs of the South Africans and members of other nationalities worldwide who gathered on Thursday night to pay tribute to and celebrate the life of this remarkable man.

Hannah Butler

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