Finding a meaning in Mandela’s life

Fiona Onasanya column
Fiona Onasanya column
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July 18 was the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birthday; if he was still with us, he would have been 100 years old.

It is difficult to understate Mandela’s achievements: he stepped out of prison and into the Presidency of South Africa.

It could have been a moment of retribution: considering how badly he was treated by the Apartheid regime, he would have been justified in being bitter.

Yet somehow, he was able to rise above himself, be outside himself, and see the greater good: the land for whose freedom he had fought and suffered, he realised, would not be served by indulging an instinct for revenge.

Rather, what was needed more than anything else was forgiveness, and the creation of a common identity which would belong to all South Africans, regardless of race or creed.

A colleague of mine told me that he once attended a talk about South Africa; an academic said in the course of the discussion, “Nelson is a lovely man; but after he departs, what happens?”

It was a fair question. South Africa’s leadership has been variable in quality since Mandela retired; President Zuma was forced from office, unemployment and crime are still far too prevalent.

Nevertheless, we have to ask ourselves, how many leaders in the world today have that ability to sit outside themselves and see the greater good? There are few; there are fewer still that sit in government.We are through the looking glass, having gone from the Age of Mandela to the Era of Trump. Vanity, egotism and self-interest have replaced being a true servant.

Perhaps there was no greater example of this than the recent embarrassment that happened after Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin; having comprehensively backed the Russian position in a press conference, which followed a tweet that had the seal of approval from Russia’s Foreign Ministry, later Trump said that he had misspoke and that his words had become tangled. His fans followed him in this odd hokey cokey: first it was strength to praise the Russian leader, then it was strength to retract. Neither stance indicates that President Trump looks outside of himself nor defends the interests of the Western world. Rather, these contortions served the convenience of his ego.

The world should do more than remember Nelson Mandela; his example should lead us out of the morass in which we presently find ourselves. It is very easy to be cynical, to say that “all politicians” are a particular way.

Mandela’s legacy should correct this impression. It should inspire us to demand and work towards better; after all, Mandela proved that better is possible.