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“He Belongs to the Ages…”

Nelson Mandela (via wikipedia)

In some way, making note of the death of Nelson Mandela seems a bit like piling onto the bandwagon.  True, our audience is Springfield…and the world, but normally few figures would prompt us to devote our space to an international figure outside our Monday Markup.  Of course, former President Mandela is quite different.

There are countless tributes to Mandela and virtually every news organization has its own obituaries.  To that end, we recommend, The New York Times for its comprehensiveness, NPR’s for its highlight of human qualities and The Mail & Guardian of South Africa for its local perspective.

These three recollections of his life are not the only word, but they do one thing well.  They describe the whole man, both for good and for ill.  In comprehending the entirety of his life and arc of his struggle, we are better able to appreciate and take in the breadth (and the limits) of his accomplishments.  Nelson Mandela, President Obama said in brief remarks in Washington, “no longer belongs to us.  He belongs to ages.”  A fitting place for such a figure.

For what it is worth, Mandela left his own impression on Massachusetts as well.  Boston was on his multinational tour shortly after his release where he rallied thousands on the Esplanade.  Roxbury’s unsuccessful attempt to succeed from the commonwealth’s capital city would have renamed the neighborhood “Mandela.”

There are countless moments in his life that stand out, but as a figure so instrumental to modern South Africa and the whole continent, we will highlight two.  In his inauguration as President, Mandela called for a state to be built that served all of its residents and not seek vengeance or retribution against its white citizens, who benefit mightily and often immorally under Apartheid.  This would stand in stark contrast to many other African nations like Zimbabwe.

The other moment is Mandela’s decision to serve only one term.  Unlike so many African leaders, many who liberated their nations from colonial or minority rule, Mandela, 80 at the time, stepped down to allow a new generation of leaders.  The New York Times notes that he did not get the successor he wished, but that was not the point of his move.  Although Mandela became and remained the conscience and the heart of the nation, he would not be the epicenter of its government.

South Africa faces mighty challenges and Mandela’s party, the African National Congress, is mired in corruption scandals that reverberate up to President Jacob Zuma.  However, they are a Democracy and have the rule of law, in stark contrast to the Apartheid era.  There is still far further that South Africa has to go, but to take a page from the United States’ own civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, the arc of history bends toward justice.  The world rightly sees Mandela as one of those who bent South African history toward that goal.