Andrew Kenny

Nelson Mandela: South Africa’s Churchill

Like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela had one shining hour that eclipsed everything else and made the world better.

Nelson Mandela belongs to a very rare class of great men.  Such men are remembered not only for their great deeds, not only for making our world better, but for bearing a special grace that transcends the business of their age.  They are the stuff of folklore. In the 20th century I can think of only two examples: Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. But even Gandhi was susceptible to pious humbug. ‘It takes a lot of money to keep Gandhi in poverty,’ said one of his advisers. Mandela was never seduced by the grandeur of humbleness. Among men who attained power, he is probably unique in the past hundred years.

Churchill and Mandela, different in most ways, had this in common. Each had his shining hour. Despite their failures and periods of isolation, each had a moment that eclipsed everything else and made the world better. Churchill’s came in 1940 when his gleaming courage, clarity and leadership saved Europe for democracy against the menace of Hitler’s National Socialism. Mandela’s came in 1994 when, after a lifetime of hardship and persecution, he became the first democratic president of South Africa. He wasn’t a very good president except for one thing, which surpassed everything else: his grace. It flowed like a healing balm over a fearful, angry and anxious land. It disarmed his most ferocious enemies and soothed his most vengeful allies. The great dread of civil war ended the moment he spoke to the nation. For all its problems, South Africa has complete political stability, and this we owe to Nelson Mandela.

There was a ridiculous urban legend that Mandela’s death would be a signal for blacks to turn upon the whites. On the contrary, it has unified the nation in grief and love, if momentarily.

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