James Russell Lowell, enjoying a sunny June day sometime in the 1840s, must have just experienced days of New England rain when he wrote “Oh, what is so rare as a day in June?” I remembered his poem when I heard of the death of the great Nelson Mandela. My answer to Lowell’s question, on this sad day, is – “a great political leader.”
Mandela’s ideas and character, forged in the fiery crucible of apartheid, were refined on Robben Island, where he learned that treating a bitter, angry jailor as a human being might produce a blanket for the night.
His great leadership was magnified by its impact on millions of other people, not just in South Africa, but everywhere. To return to Lowell’s poetic metaphor of Spring, “We hear life murmur…Every Clod feels a stir of might.” And that impact, reflected back on him, only increased his moral authority.
Political leaders are usually assessed by official accomplishments during their terms of office. And Nelson Mandela had many. Equally important, however, was his long-term contribution, during the struggle against apartheid and afterwards to the creation of a strong and dynamic South African civil society. The thirty South Africans working for democratization NGOs that I interviewed for my book are, without exception, his moral and intellectual heirs. Like democratization NGOs in many countries they select and “import” democratic ideas from the past (the Enlightenment) and from other countries. But they also support and strengthen their own democratic traditions. In most countries such traditions tend to cluster at the village level (village councils, for example). However, South African democratization NGOs have their own Nelson Mandela, a worldwide democratic hero.