Nelson Mandela is no more. You have read gushing tributes, noble quotations, effusive obituaries. Bear with me here; I come to bury the great man, not to praise him.
Great he undoubtedly was. For one man to have demonstrated the resolve, patience, dignity, forgiveness and unselfishness that he did is a most unusual occurrence, one that most of us are unlikely to see repeated in our lifetimes.
Nonetheless, as we honour the departed icon of our times, let us please NOT do two things.
First, let us not deify Mandela. He was a great man no doubt, but still just a man. It started happening even during his lifetime, and certainly after his death the huge movement to turn Madiba into a demigod, a man with no flaws, a saint on earth, will become unbearable.
The man himself would have been greatly embarrassed. He once said: “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” He knew very well that he was just a man, an extraordinary man with extraordinary achievements, no doubt, but still just a man. And full of flaws, lapses of judgement, bad decisions, just like all men are.
He went on to state: “That was one of the things that worried me – to be raised to the position of a semi-god – because then you are no longer a human being. I wanted to be known as Mandela, a man with weaknesses, some of which are fundamental, and a man who is committed.”
The problem with regarding great leaders as near-divine is this: we treat them as exceptions, as freak occurrences who cannot be emulated. Instead of aspiring to be like them, we begin worshipping them instead. The Buddha, another great man of his time, was fond of saying: “I am pointing at the moon; but do not mistake my finger for the moon.”
Sadly, few paid attention. Up to today, most of the Buddha’s followers (and those of all other great figures) are patently worshipping the finger, having forgotten about the moon that was being pointed to.
Which brings me to the second thing we must NOT do in honouring our fallen hero. The world is abuzz with praise for the departed leader: on the day his death was confirmed, my Twitter timeline had little else going on except Mandela tweets. It was the same with the world’s TV stations.
But wait: some of those folks giving praise have to give us pause. What is praise, after all? What honours Mandela more: gushers of endless applause, or each of us taking his lessons to heart and trying to emulate them?
Could we take a look at the things the man DID, rather than the things we want to repeat, ad nauseam? He fought for a great cause, and devoted his life to it. He suffered great personal setbacks, in the service a bigger ideal. He never, ever gave up. He never compromised himself, and never struck deals with his enemies. He forgave his tormentors. He brought peace to a riven nation. He enriched his world, not himself. He never silenced his critics through intimidation. He did not grab half his country’s land, nor did he stash his people’s wealth in personal bank accounts. And when his time was done, he passed the baton on with grace.
So then: who wishes to step forward to praise the good man now? For in praising him, we will have to assume you are trying in some way to be like him, to stand for the same things, to bring more of the same good into the world.
On the other hand, if your aim is just to join in the happy-clappy chorus but do nothing good yourself; if you wish to benefit from the praise circus by linking your tattered brand with Madiba’s; please slink away and keep quiet. Anyone can utter words. Few can do the hard things that greatness demands.
Mandela did, and we are grateful.