Where Is the Next Nelson Mandela?

It's absurd, I know, but wouldn't it be nice to think that one day another Mandela figure will emerge, someone with the same burning sense of justice, unquenchable courage and personal integrity? Absurd, yes, but we can dream, can't we?

It's absurd, I know, but wouldn't it be nice to think that one day another Mandela figure will emerge, someone with the same burning sense of justice, unquenchable courage and personal integrity? Absurd, yes, but we can dream, can't we?

After all, is it inevitable that today's politicians will always cut such miserable, unimpressive figures? Where are the latter-day Churchills, Abraham Lincolns, Nelson Mandelas?

Ah, the sages will say, but now there are no great causes. No slavery to be ended, no Fascism to be vanquished, no apartheid to be dismantled. Great leaders, they will say, are forged in mighty battles against injustice - and where today are the great causes likely to produce a new Mandela or a new Churchill?

Well, I have an answer to that, and it lies in Mandela's own words, in that famous proclamation from the dock when he was facing the hangman's noose at the Rivonia trial in 1964. He ended his three-hour speech by defining the ideal for which he was prepared to die: "a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities."

With equal opportunities. Three words that are so often forgotten, or ignored, or wilfully misunderstood. (Boris Johnson, are you listening?) What cause could be greater, what injustice more worth confronting, than the obscenity that condemns millions of children to a life that denies them what Nelson Mandela was prepared to die for?

Equal opportunities. Not equality of wealth, or intelligence, or happiness or health. Even Cuba and the Israeli kibbutz movement have given up on the idea that everyone should earn the same. Simply the promise of a society in which the playing field is level (all right, I'm a realist: I'll settle for a playing field that is more level than it is now) - in which to be born poor does not mean being born with little or no chance of fulfilling whatever promise your genes and your talents may have endowed you with.

Where is the British Mandela prepared to fight - really fight - for equal opportunities? To rail against the same injustices that galvanised Mandela: poverty and lack of human dignity? To argue that there is something intrinsically evil about a society in which (again, the words come from his Rivonia speech) some "enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world, whilst [others] live in poverty and misery."

No, I'm not saying that Britain in 2013 is the same as South Africa was in 1964. I'm not that daft. But the alleviation of poverty is a cause every bit as worth fighting for as apartheid was 50 years ago - and if a new Mandela is looking for a battle worth waging, it's right there, in the nation's maternity wards, where you could go from new-born babe to new-born babe and, simply by asking about their family circumstances, mark on their brow in indelible ink: this one will do well, this one will not.

According to one recent study, one quarter of all children in the UK live in poverty - that's more than in many other European countries including Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Slovenia, Cyprus, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic. And only half those children reach what is defined as "a good level of development" by the age of five.

Too often, to be born into poverty means to be denied even the most basic chance to lead a fulfilled life. Too often, it means to live in sub-standard housing, to be educated in a sub-standard school, to suffer from sub-standard health, and to be at greater risk of being a victim of violent crime. Not because of a lack of intelligence, or laziness, or wickedness. Simply because of poverty.

There are some exceptions, of course, those fortunate few who do break free from this relentless cycle of deprivation, just as Nelson Mandela was an exception as a black South African living in an apartheid state. So it is from among those who live in poverty that perhaps we should hope one day to see emerge an effective, passionate, determined fighter, someone who will speak not for the "squeezed middle" - every politician seems only too keen to speak for them - but for the "crushed bottom", the people who had the least to start with but then had the most taken away as post-crash austerity mania swept the land.

It will be someone who, like Mandela, will first confront the evil and then engage with it, who will attack those who insist on retaining their unfair privileges, and then sit down with them and talk to them, to persuade them by sheer force of argument that to live in a more just society benefits all equally, those who have as much as those who have not.

A disproportionate number of the UK's have nots are women, and a disproportionate number don't have white skins. Perhaps that gives us a clue where to look as we wait for the emergence of an anti-poverty Mandela.

It's no more absurd, surely, than imagining that apartheid South Africa would one day be replaced by a multi-racial democracy without the country first having been plunged into a bloodbath. That, too, was a dream once ...


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