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The Economist Obituary On Nelson Mandela

December 13, 2013


Remarkable in all ways.


WHO was the greatest statesman of the 20th century? Discard the mass murderers such as Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong; set aside the autocratic nationalists like Gamal Abdel Nasser and the more admirable, but probably less influential, anticommunists like Vaclav Havel; then winnow the list to half a dozen names. On it would perhaps be Mohandas Gandhi, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, Jack Kennedy and Nelson Mandela. For many people, in many lands, the most inspirational of these would be the last.


Mr Mandela did not single-handedly end apartheid. The collapse of communism, yoked to African nationalism by white opponents, played a part; so did international sanctions, domestic economic pressures, non-ANC internal resistance and the person of F.W. de Klerk, president from 1989 to 1994, whom Mr Mandela did not treat altogether well. But Mr Mandela’s symbolic role was hard to exaggerate.

His greater achievement was to see the need for reconciliation, to forswear retribution and then to act as midwife to a new, democratic South Africa, built on the rule of law. This was something only he could do. He gave hope to millions of Africans and inspired millions of others elsewhere, but if his successors in government have been less admirable, and if his example has not been followed in countries like Zimbabwe, that should not be surprising. Heroic though he was, he did not have the messianic powers some attributed to him, nor could others be expected to match his capacity to hold high principles, to live by them and to use his moral stature to such effect. Circumstances, after all, could hardly suit everyone so well. Hard though much of his life had been, Mr Mandela lived long enough to see his work through. That gave him his great achievement, and his story a happy ending. And the modern world loves a happy hero even more than a tragic one.

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