Mandela: Was he the last of the Great Men?

We tend not to deify our leaders these days, which is generally a good thing. But also, unfortunately, a cynical thing.

When Barack Obama’s miserable approval ratings slipped into the high 30s, some pundits, right and left, have said he was basically done, ignoring the fact that every president since Kennedy has spent some time in the 30s. This is who we’ve become since Vietnam, where blind faith in government would go to die, along with the 58,000.

But we’ve put aside our cynicism today, as Nelson Mandela leaves us at age 95.  If he is described as a combination of his country’s Washington and Lincoln, who is to argue? He was a Great Man in the way that a certain few transcend mere adjectives.

He fought against apartheid, one of the world’s great evils. In that fight, Mandela spent 27 years in prison and became, in time, a living martyr. He was finally released from prison and refused the opportunity for vengeance. He became South Africa’s official leader and preached and practiced reconciliation. He left office voluntarily after one term and stayed true to his cause, even as mere human South Africans have allowed too much of what he cherished to slip away.

The problem with the Great Man (or Woman) theory of history is that one man, or woman, accomplishes nothing alone. The fact that the white minority did not face retribution for apartheid is not one person’s contribution. It’s a nation’s. But without Mandela, who can say what might have happened? And as Obama would say, “He achieved more than could be expected of any man.” In the National Journal, Michael Hirsh says there’s no one to replace him.

In a Time magazine essay, entitled The Indispensable Man, it quotes Archbishop Demond Tutu, another of the warriors against apartheid, as saying that prison “gave gave him a new depth and serenity at the core of his being, and made him tolerant and magnanimous to a fault, more ready to forgive than to nurse grudges—paradoxically regal and even arrogant, and at the same time ever so humble and modest.”

And Mandela said, “I wanted South Africa to see that I loved even my enemies while I hated the system that turned us against one another.”

Regal, arrogant, humble, modest. He was a revolutionary (and labeled, naturally, a terrorist). He was a healer. You rarely see both in one person. He set the highest goals and, amazingly, he met them. There were costs in the fight to his personal life, and he paid them. An “international emblem of dignity and forbearance,” the New York Times would write.

You can see Mandela deliver what Mother Jones calls his epitaph “in his own words” in the famous 1964 courtroom speech that he thought would be his last.

And so, the world mourns, and we wonder when we’ll see his like again.

Or if.


  1. Sitting in prison in the US today is our own Nelson. Do not forget Leonard Peltier. A Great Man, illegally imprisoned because they feared the power of his truth, as they did Mandela. Free Leonard Peltier.

  2. As an atheist – he is I feel – the closest that any person we know who actually followed much of the Christian dogma. Others will be noted in world history but he is of histories all time greats. One to be emulated by all races and beliefs.

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