The death of Nelson Mandela brought tears and tributes. He was hailed as a beloved icon, an inspiration to millions, a folk hero of epic proportions. He inspired songs, movies and several generations of activism.
President Barack Obama said, “He no longer belongs to us — he belongs to the ages.”
Singer Paul Simon wrote on Facebook, “His passing should reignite a worldwide effort for peace.”
This is the kind of praise reserved for larger-than-life leaders. Yet even as I shared in the sadness of Mandela’s passing, I kept wondering where the next such leader would come from.
Or if he or she ever would.
When you hear the phrase, “They don’t make them like that anymore,” it usually refers to cars or houses. But it could easily apply to world figures. In fact, you could argue that Mandela is the last of the almost-universally adored figureheads.
Who else is there? Most political powerhouses are hated more than loved. No religious leader commands universal reverence (the pope may be closest, but that is more the position than the man). Even the handful of business tycoons who try to be bigger-than-life altruistic — Bill Gates, Warren Buffett — can’t escape the initial reaction of, “Well, yeah, if I had that kind of money, I’d be altruistic, too.”
From prison to the presidency
So what was it about Mandela that stirred us so? It wasn’t his political legacy. He served only five years as South Africa’s president. And it wasn’t geography. How many of the people mourning him ever have set foot in Mandela’s home country?
I think it begins with suffering. Most universally revered figures have endured something and risen above it, which gives their followers hope. In Mandela’s case, he paid an enormous price for a worldwide platform: He sat in a prison cell for 27 years.
During that time, he became a symbol as much as a person. When he finally was released in 1990, after enormous external pressure, he stepped into the sunlight — as well as into a mold. The mold was part-victim, part-martyr, part-media curiosity and a big part symbol of humanity in the face of injustice.
The last was where Mandela made his mark.
He could have been bitter, angry, cynical or bombastic. Instead, he diffused situations with handshakes and an engaging smile. He spoke eloquently. Even in a tense debate with Frederik Willem de Klerk, then the president of South Africa, Mandela brought down his rival with words, at one point declaring, “Even a discredited, illegitimate, minority regime must observe certain moral standards.”
He wasn’t a politician fighting to pass a tax bill. He was a freed man fighting for his people’s freedom.
His legend grew.
Bridging the great divide
By the way, this doesn’t mean that Mandela lacked critics. He had them, including those who said he was a Marxist and who decried his early embrace of violence for the cause (which he later eschewed).
But even Mother Teresa had critics. And her death, in 1997, may have been the last time an international figure received this sort of worldwide emotional send-off.
That’s pretty lofty company.
So who is the next leader of this status? I can’t think of one. We’re too divided now. Obama was seen, on his election night, as a symbol of high hopes, but that honeymoon didn’t last very long. Today, he is mired in the same political sludge as his predecessors.
What man or woman could unite left and right? Could inspire Christian, Muslim, Jew and Hindu?
I asked Judge Damon Keith — who in 1990 introduced Mandela to a cheering Tiger Stadium crowd — why the man was so singular in adoration.
“It’s something about the suffering and majesty of his 27 years of imprisonment,” Keith said. “The way that he handled that type of injustice for a cause and for his people.”
The world today has no shortage of injustice. But it still seems unlikely that we will soon have any more Mandelas. The Internet and worldwide media have changed the equation. Anyone who gets too big is brought down by some hidden camera, or prying reporter or vicious blogger. It is worth noting that Mandela spent about a third of his adult life out of public view.
Maybe that’s the safest way to do it in modern times.
“God has a way of developing leaders,” Keith suggested.
Maybe so. This is clear: If you uplift people with hope, you will be elevated yourself. Mandela achieved lofty status. But he died as high above our heads as this generation may ever lift anyone again.