Since I came of age—whatever that expression means—I do not remember the conclusion of any life that has been greeted with such global outpouring of respect and reverence as we are witnessing for Nelson Mandela.
It is as if the humanity generally was in dire need of a grander moral purpose and found it in Mandela’s passing because it ironically renewed its awareness of his existence in the first place. I have long thought that humans generally want to elevate themselves to a higher calling and but often do not find the right benchmark. Mandela seems to have become that benchmark in his passing.
Being Indian and a Gujarati from Ahmedabad to boot, South Africa was always ticking in a remote recess of my consciousness because of Mohandas Gandhi. South Africa is where the attorney-at-law from London became an astutely effective moral and political campaigner. Although Mandela was born four years after Gandhi left South Africa—having spent about 22 years in that country—he did grow up being deeply aware of his overall influence on the public discourse in South Africa.
I am not even remotely qualified to comment on Mandela’s life because it is not a subject which was ever part of my reporting experience. Other than saying that figures such as Mandela, who are by their very nature rare, emerge as a powerful moral corrective to the humanity’s ills I do not have the scholarship to say much more.
One has read and heard a lot of commentary about Mandela’s extraordinary sense of forgiveness for those who perpetrated such raw cruelty on the South Africans in general and him in particular. From what one has read Mandela had long decided that as he emerged from his long incarceration he would consciously avoid walking into a new phase of imprisonment imposed by hatred. He had the enlightened reasonableness to see that more than anyone else that hatred for his captors would shackle him all over again.
I saw a photograph of school children in my hometown of Ahmedabad paying tribute to Mandela by holding his portraits and candles.While that makes for a touching visual, I am hoping there was someone at hand to explain to them in the idiom they understand who he was. Otherwise, it might just become one more face in India’s ever expanding pantheon of people to be ritualized and not really paid much more substantive attention to.
There are inevitable comparisons between Gandhi and Mandela, simply because the former has long become the absolute gold standard of moral and political courage and protest. One specific observation that I would make on this is that all greatness of the kind that Gandhi and Mandela seemed to share begins to look alike after a certain point. That is because underlying such greatness is the singular conviction of the person in the moral rightness of their cause and their ability to transmit it to a vast number of people.
Of course, Gandhi and Mandela operated in markedly different circumstances and against different adversary. Gandhi may have been an astute politician but his default personality was dominated by morality. In Mandela’s case, political pragmatism and moral imperative seemed to be in equal measure. At the risk of being simplistic, in Gandhi, politics was in service of morality while in Mandela’s case morality was in service of politics. Of course, their eventual goal was a better humanity and they both accomplished it to a considerable degree.