Mandela: The Last ‘Hero for the World’

The globe lacks a successor worthy of him. Are there any on the horizon?

ANC leader Nelson Mandela and wife Winnie raise fists upon his release from Victor Verster prison, 11 February 1990 in Paarl.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Dec. 5, 2013, 12:08 p.m.

The great ones, it of­ten seems, hand off the mantle of great­ness to each oth­er. Nel­son Man­dela, in his 1994 auto­bi­o­graphy, Long Walk to Free­dom, de­scribed how Frank­lin Roosevelt and Win­ston Churchill in 1941 helped change his life and those of his fel­low black stu­dents in the in­fant Afric­an Na­tion­al Con­gress with the At­lantic Charter, which com­mit­ted the West to hu­man dig­nity and uni­ver­sal rights, set­ting the stage for the en­tire post­war world. “Some in the West saw the charter as empty prom­ises,” Man­dela wrote, “but not those of us in Africa. In­spired by the At­lantic Charter and the fight of the Al­lies against tyranny and op­pres­sion, the ANC cre­ated its own charter.” Called “Afric­an Claims,” it set out the as­pir­a­tions that would make Man­dela a revered world fig­ure a half-cen­tury later.

Then a young Barack Obama sought to take the mantle from Man­dela. In his own auto­bi­o­graphy, Dreams from My Fath­er — in a story he again re­peated on his vis­it to Africa last June — Obama de­scribed how the anti-apartheid move­ment that Man­dela led ef­fect­ively began his own rise to cha­ris­mat­ic lead­er­ship. As a fresh­man at Oc­ci­dent­al Col­lege in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Obama made his first at­tempt at pub­lic speak­ing at a di­vest­ment-from-South-Africa rally (where “Free Man­dela!” was of­ten a ral­ly­ing cry). He wrote that few of the Fris­bee-play­ing stu­dents were listen­ing when he began in a low voice, say­ing, “There’s a struggle go­ing on.” Then he raised his deep bari­tone, and sud­denly, for the first time, the Obama Ef­fect made it­self known. “The Fris­bee play­ers stopped…. The crowd was quiet now, watch­ing me. Some­body star­ted to clap. ‘Go on with it, Barack,’ some­body shouted…. I knew I had them, that the con­nec­tion had been made.” Thus, in­spired by Man­dela’s struggle, was launched a voice that would ig­nite a met­eor­ic polit­ic­al rise and later in­spire huge crowds in places like Ber­lin and Cairo.

With the an­nounce­ment of Man­dela’s death Thursday at age 95, who will the mantle go to now? In his re­marks, the pres­id­ent of South Africa, Jac­ob Zuma, called Man­dela South Africa’s “greatest son.” But Man­dela was far, far more than that, as Obama in­dic­ated when he flew to South Africa last June, just after Man­dela fell mor­tally ill, and pre-eu­lo­gized his per­son­al hero as a “hero for the world.” Is there any­one else left on the plan­et who could be de­scribed that way? Who’s the next Man­dela? Is one even pos­sible?

Cer­tainly Obama him­self doesn’t qual­i­fy (yet). In­deed, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to call Man­dela the last of the great ones, the truly in­spir­a­tion­al his­tor­ic­al lead­ers on the scale of a Gandhi or Churchill or FDR who lived noble (if not en­tirely un­tain­ted, though Man­dela comes close) lives and, more im­port­antly, who genu­inely changed the world for the bet­ter. Look around the world, and you see no one else of that stature. Even the once-sainted Aung San Suu Kyi, Asia’s an­swer to Man­dela who suffered as a house pris­on­er of the Burmese junta for 20 years while her hus­band died and her chil­dren grew up without her, has looked some­what com­prom­ised since she was freed and began her tent­at­ive dance with the dic­tat­ors. Re­cently Suu Kyi has tem­por­ized, in a most un-Man­dela-like way, over the Burmese mil­it­ary’s bru­tal op­pres­sion of the Kachin and Ro­hingya com­munit­ies in Burma, and that “has tar­nished her im­age abroad while rais­ing con­cerns about the fu­ture of Burma’s tent­at­ive polit­ic­al re­form,” El­len Bork wrote in an art­icle titled “Burma’s Fallen Idol” in For­eign Policy.

As for the oth­er ma­jor lead­ers on the scene, from the United King­dom to Europe to China to Rus­sia to most of the rest of Africa, there is pre­cious little to ad­mire, and plenty to lament.

Why is that? Don’t we still have great causes, or has the en­tire glob­al­ized sys­tem grown too gray and com­prom­ised? Per­haps some­how, start­ing with places like South Africa, just enough justice and free­dom has been achieved in the last few dec­ades to make every­one just a little too sat­is­fied and a little too will­ing to hedge and fudge. The anti-apartheid move­ment of the ‘80s was in some ways the last really co­her­ent glob­al so­cial-justice cam­paign. We’ve seen two suc­cess­ive so­cial move­ments erupt in the last two dec­ades over the still-dev­ast­at­ing in­equal­it­ies in the glob­al eco­nomy — the anti-glob­al­iz­a­tion protests of the ‘90s and then Oc­cupy Wall Street — and yet no in­spir­a­tion­al fig­ure has emerged from them and both move­ments petered out with a whim­per (though old Ral­ph Nader’s still around, mak­ing some fairly val­id points about the ex­cesses of free-trade agree­ments). Time magazine’s an­nu­al list of the world’s “100 Most In­flu­en­tial People” is con­tinu­ally de­flat­ing, stocked with pop artists, ty­coons, mar­gin­al politi­cians and … Sheryl Sand­berg.

It’s not like we haven’t seen some new mini-her­oes spring up, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s story is far from fin­ished, just as Obama’s isn’t. Aaron Swartz, the In­ter­net act­iv­ist who tra­gic­ally killed him­self when faced with pro­sec­u­tion in Janu­ary, has in­spired a move­ment around a bill that would rein in pro­sec­utors. Malala Yousafzai, the teen­aged edu­ca­tion act­iv­ist who was shot in the head by the Taliban, would seem to have a great fu­ture — if she sur­vives fu­ture as­saults. Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency leak­er Ed­ward Snowden has found a fol­low­ing among a few liber­tari­ans and far-left­ists, but few oth­ers. If the glob­al eco­nomy has had any her­oes over the last few years, it’s prob­ably cent­ral bankers like Ben Bernanke and Mario Draghi — but, nev­er mind about that. No cause, and no lead­er, has in­spired any­thing like the de­vo­tion and rev­er­ence that Man­dela did.

Is it that Man­dela was truly unique? In his auto­bi­o­graphy, Man­dela wrote that he was “no more vir­tu­ous or self-sac­ri­fi­cing than the next man” and nev­er wanted the mantle of move­ment lead­er, but it was the struggle for ba­sic free­dom “that trans­formed a frightened young man in­to a bold one, that drove a law-abid­ing at­tor­ney to be­come a crim­in­al, that turned a fam­ily-lov­ing hus­band in to a man without a home, that forced a life-lov­ing man to live like a monk.” As usu­al, Man­dela is be­ing too humble. It wasn’t just the way he con­duc­ted his struggle against the ra­cist white re­gime in South Africa, in and out of pris­on (re­fus­ing, in case we’ve for­got­ten, any con­di­tions at all for his re­lease, in­clud­ing re­noun­cing vi­ol­ence). It was also the way, after he was re­leased from 26 years of im­pris­on­ment and be­came pres­id­ent, Man­dela trans­muted his per­son­al suf­fer­ing in­to a lar­ger un­der­stand­ing, as only the great ones can do, and an em­brace of his former en­emies that was about as close as you get to Christ-like in the mod­ern world.

“He’s a per­son­al hero, but I don’t think I’m unique in that re­gard,” Obama said in Dakar last June. “I think he’s a hero for the world. And if and when he passes from this place, one thing I think we’ll all know is that his leg­acy is one that will linger on throughout the ages.”

Es­pe­cially be­cause there is no one to re­place him.

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