Nelson Mandela’s loss has rendered him even more iconic than the events that transformed his life. He stands a giant in our memories, and it is difficult to graph him as a common human being, one with human failings and errors of judgment. With his death, he has been relegated to the pages of history as a legendary warrior fighting with the implements of peace, patience and political discourse and instituting democracy in a country wracked by discrimination.
I visited Mandela’s jail cell in 2009. It was a small 8×8 square cell, and I remember examining the walls in an attempt to search for something of the man, a mark, a smudge, a scratch that would have been mine to keep and hold. I found nothing. Which goes to support what he represents. Nelson Mandela belongs to everyone and thus to no one.
Nelson Mandela often said that he was influenced by Gandhi, and indeed in the execution of his life, the pardoning of his jailers, embracing his enemies, and relentlessly bargaining for democracy in South Africa he resembled Gandhi in many ways. Both were lawyers and cut their political teeth in the great patriotic struggle and both grew to be legendary leaders. Where Mandela is different is in the implementation of his ideas. He did not believe in hunger fasts and sought a more inclusive society through pragmatic militancy.
The kind of utopian idealism that both espoused never really came to pass. Today, both India and South Africa are countries in distress with rampant corruption, poverty and high incidences of crime. However, both India and South Africa would never have advanced on the trajectory of change without Gandhi and Mandela. Their humility of manner and the grandiosity of their vision set them apart. Both Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi stand as great moral leaders for this generation and many more to come.