Nelson Mandela has died, aged 95, Jacob Zuma just announced.
After all the almost-deaths of Madiba, I didn’t think I would be sad when he finally left, but I am. His story remains one of the most powerful and inspiring ones in my life. I’m still reacting to this, but I think I want to make three points now:
1. MYTH: His life has been mythologised to the point of collapse, but we should resist the urge to beatify the dead. His life’s greatness lay in the humanity of it, which is to say the messy nature of it. He was a complicated man, who lived a deeply complicated, flawed and in many ways deeply tragic life. But he sacrificed for a cause he believed in, and achieved a deeper meaning which transcended himself. That’s what inspires me. That’s what I take with me from his life. I also think we should acknowledge what he could not accomplish. I remember the signs everywhere during my time in South Africa of a society in constant, low-level distress. Armed guards everywhere, thick locks on everything, meeting rape victims whereever I went, social need, racism, inequality and division. And at the same time: a blossoming economy, an infrastructure clicking into place, a social order lying dormant under the surface of chaos and division.
2. CHANGE: I think we should recognize the story of Mandela as a story of someone, like Martin Luther King during the civil rights era, changing the nature of his struggle to address the challenges the world impinged on him with. And of a man who was willing to sacrifice time, the very stuff of his life, and the possibility of him changing, for a greater cause.
3. RADICALISM: There are many things Mandela never got to do right. But he helped lead and embody a movement that fought for social justice. A movement of radical change in a repressive society. His movement used innovative means to achieve their ends, and they fought for a profoundly just cause. We should never forget just how radical and difficult a thing it is to raise the downtrodden of the earth to the status of equals. And we should never forget the damage, the warping and tearing of human nature which the inequality and injustice of institutionalised inhumanity does to the spirit of those who are ground down under it — and to those who are held high on their backs.
So thank you, Madiba. For your time.