Nelson Mandela's legacy is extraordinary in a world unable to cope with its diversity or temper its angst. No superlatives can do justice to this remarkable life. A man whose achievements are those of gods, yet he remained a simple and humble person to his last days. Many claim prerogative on his moral wisdom. Yet there is something original about Mandela and something uniquely African about him that can teach the world a lot.
While struggling against Apartheid and then bringing it down, Mandela maintained his core belief in the equality and dignity of all human beings irrespective of race, religion or gender. He added another element. Irrespective of action. In that he upheld the rhetoric many religions pronounce but rarely live by, many leaders say but rarely deliver. The ability to forgive and move on.
Mandela believed in the intrinsic goodness and innocence of most human beings. It was the system that he wanted to destroy, not the people. People become trapped in the systems they often create, either as perpetrators or victims. When freed, human beings have the capacity to change and readjust.
In bringing down Apartheid but refusing to start a witch hunt of the perpetrators, Mandela put in practice his belief. It was the end of the system that was the point of his closure, not punishing the guilty.
This is neither solely Christian, Gandhian or modern secular liberalism nor for that matter a claim that can be made uniquely by any other religion or philosophical school. Most of them have failed to show closure without revenge in their regions of dominance.
Revenge was rampant in the glory days of Christiandom; not to forget the crusades and lately right wing Christian movements' vociferous calling for the wars that US-UK start these days. Nor does it seem to be a deeply held belief of modern secular liberal worldview. It was the secular liberal press that provided moral support for the invasion of Iraq to bring the 'tyrant' Saddam down rather than find reconciliation.
Neither can Gandhian pundits claim Mandela's moral compass. Gandhi insisted on a peaceful struggle for decolonisation, condemned the insurgents whose actions weakened British resolve but then unsuccessfully tried negotiating support for British war effort in return for home rule. He even supported the war against Pakistan. Not quite a consistent peace philosophy.
Mandela did not acquiesce to authorities. He refused to distance himself from the armed struggle of African National Congress. In fact that prolonged his detention. He remained consistent.
Mandela did not denounce violence when he was weak only to take it up when he had access to arms. In the post Apartheid period when he and the ANC had control of the full coercive violent power of the modern State, he did everything to prevent revenge attacks against the white population.
What is even more significant, he prevented an all out communal violence between the common South African and the mighty Zulus whose leaders were still considering a separate country under King Buthelezi. It was his extraordinary political skills and wisdom together with qualities of the ANC that kept the country united and the transition peaceful. To have this much power yet seek peaceful routes to resolve differences makes him a unique and perhaps only one of a kind.
An equally remarkable act by the ANC under his leadership was the dismantling of the nuclear option whereas most post colonial and post oppressive countries have sought to develop it by any means.
Critics say that Mandela's decisions have ensured an affluent white class, a corrupt leadership and large number of black South Africans still living in dire poverty in the townships. One only has to look across Africa at other examples where independence was followed by disruption, violence and eventually despots. Their economies suffered, poverty became deeper and violence is always simmering under the surface.
South Africa has been spared the worst. Today it is one of the most stable economies in Africa, with perhaps the most stable political system and communities coexisting side by side. True there is a lot of progress to be made.
Mandela achieved what he set out to do. He brought Apartheid down without sacrificing his principles. He delivered his people through their most emotionally charged period and prevented reckless destruction of institutions. He kept his country united. He embraced peaceful routes when he was in total control of the means of violence. Having seen his country through this, he gave up power and lived peacefully like a common man. There is something very African about this deep wisdom.
In Africa they call this ecology of wisdom, Ubuntu. He was a true son of Africa and a true elder of Africans from whom there is much to learn. South Africa after him has the opportunity to continue the legacy of Ubuntu and teach the world about real African wisdom..