Monday, December 9, 2013

‘Hope Is a Powerful Weapon’

The desire to comment on the passing of a man as great as Nelson Mandela is irresistible. But what to say about him that does him justice and has not already been said in the past several days by so many others more authoritatively and more eloquently?

In Ireland, his death and life have taken over the media in way that, one imagines, could scarcely have been matched if the greatest living Irishman had passed away. The outpouring of love here for the man begs to be compared to that for a revered saint among devout Catholics. His visits to Ireland are being fondly remembered, the last one being ten years ago when this country hosted the Special Olympics. On that occasion he came to Galway to receive an honorary degree from the National University of Ireland. After receiving his award, the Corrs performed and the great man rose to demonstrate his trademark dance, the “Madiba Jive.”

Window of a newspaper office in Galway

His personal charm had a lot to do with why he was so universally loved after he became president of South Africa. But even more important was his unequalled moral courage, his personal constancy and, not least important, his political shrewdness. In the wake of his passing, there is a natural inclination to make Mandela even more of a paragon than any human being could live up to. That is entirely understandable.

There are important lessons to be learned from his life. Some of obvious, others less so. Here are some that I think are worth noting:

The importance of a leader’s personal moral example cannot be overstated. As a national leader, Mandela inherited a post atop a society at a dangerous crossroads. There were ill feelings in communities that, respectively, felt long oppressed or felt at risk after losing its position of privilege. Mandela navigated that explosive situation by his example of reconciliation. And who could challenge his insistence on not seeking revenge—after he himself had spent 27 years of his life in prison? It is rare to have a political leader who has made such an extraordinary personal sacrifice. It is rarer still to have one whose wisdom towers over the injustices he has suffered personally.

Societies who have a well-ingrained democratic culture have a better chance of achieving justice than those that do not. Along with Mohandas K. Gandhi, Mandela may have personally made the most dramatic difference in a large country. Why were they were hugely successful when similarly impressive men and women of conscience were unable to effect changes in countries that ranged from the Soviet Union to Cuba? The difference is that Gandhi opposed the British and Mandela opposed a regime in a country that had been a dominion of the British Empire. Gandhi and Mandela’s non-violent moral campaigns (Mandela wound up renouncing the violent means he had embraced early on) succeeded because those societies had traditions of liberty and rights—despite the fact that those rights had not been extended to all communities.

Sanctions can work. The end of apartheid in South Africa is a fairly clear example of economic sanctions accomplishing their goal. Is there a lesson here for current negotiations with Iran? Well, it may be worth noting that the U.S. did not lift sanctions until after Mandela was released from prison, and other countries did not until after Mandela was in office as president.

When push comes to shove, really smart people put their confidence in free markets. By the time of his death, Mandela was so universally revered that it is easy to forget that in his early days he was, at least in rhetorical terms, pretty darn radical. When he became the leader of the African National Congress’s youth league, the group was espousing Marx, Engels and Lenin. Throughout his life he remained friendly with the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muamar Gadaffi and Fidel Castro. But when he had the responsibility of governing his country, he opted mainly for free-market capitalism as an economic basis. Life is not perfect in South Africa, but it is a heck of lot better than anybody realistically hoped or expected.

The praise around the world for Mandela is clearly heartfelt and deserved—even though one gets the feeling that at least some of the politicians rushing to the microphones are hoping that some of the great man’s magic will rub off on them. And who can blame them? Let them do their best because the wonderful thing about a man like Nelson Mandela is that his gigantic example puts into relief the meagre stature of other politicians.

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