Nelson Mandela had lived a long life, and yet his death still comes as a shock. Mandela is the preeminent statesman and public figure of our time. To imagine a world without Madiba in it is both disorienting and unsettling.
For people growing up in the 1980s, the struggle for which Mandela has become an international symbol was for us our political education. His release from prison in 1990 was my first clear political memory. More so than the Labour victory of 1997, it was Mandela’s inauguration as President in 1994 that made me believe in the power of democracy and politics to change things for the better. And for the past 20 years, for countless people around the world for whom freedom and equality do not yet exist, and although they would never meet him, the knowledge that Mandela was free and victorious provided confidence, sustenance and hope.
It was only when I visited South Africa in 2008, as part of an Action for Southern Africa study tour, that I understood the scale of Mandela’s achievement. That there was no civil war, no mass loss of human life, when measured against the depth of the injustice perpetrated against the majority population of the country over so many years, seems nothing short of a miracle.
For the people of South Africa, Mandela’s legacy has been a desire to perpetuate that miracle, long after the rainbow has faded. The realities of stark economic inequality along racial lines is still the defining feature of a free South Africa. But Mandela’s miracle has held within it the hope that so much more can be achieved. For people in other countries, Mandela’s miracle has provided proof that idealism can, after all, triumph over realism, and that indeed “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.”
Mandela will be missed, but the idea he lived for will live on.