Nelson Mandela: A Hero For Our Time
This weekend, as the superpowers flirted and Syria burned, the world's attention was focused elsewhere – on a frail, 94-year-old man battling for his life in a Pretoria hospital.
Nelson Mandela, South Africa's former president, is easily the most revered and beloved figure alive today. It's not just his quiet charisma, self-deprecating humour, or compelling life story that explains his extraordinary global appeal. He has come to embody the ideal of a heroic leader in a world woefully short of – but desperate for – heroes.
We live in disenchanted times. The information age – media-saturated and hyper-connected – has stripped away the shroud of mystery and deference that used to surround public figures, leaving us paradoxically both more cynical and more celebrity-obsessed. It seems like just a matter of time before most of our statesmen are exposed as frauds or megalomaniacs; our CEOs as robber barons or tax cheats; our religious leaders as moral hypocrites or sexual predators.
Suddenly our leaders – vain, self-seeking, corruptible – appear all too human, or worse. Barely a month goes by without a new study revealing how a disproportionate number of narcissists and sociopaths crawl their way to the top to the greasy pole. The reason why there isn't greater public outrage over the spectacle of crack-smoking mayors or petty-pilfering senators is because our opinion of ‘the authorities’ is already at rock bottom.
It's not just our leaders who are found wanting, but us as well. Being a hero means subordinating your interests to a greater good, devoting yourself to a bigger cause, making sacrifices for a noble ideal. But how many people today live – or at least aspire to live – heroic lives? In a culture that fetishizes ultra-individualism and personal gratification above everything, the whole idea of "devotion" and "sacrifice" seems vaguely anachronistic, uncool, even suspicious – the preserve of crusaders and crackpots. Such qualities may have been fine for another time and place – the Second World War, say, or the civil rights movement – but they're too much to expect of people nowadays. Heroics, we grimly declare, is passé.
And yet we protest too much. Beneath this pervasive mood of skepticism, doubt, and disillusionment runs a deeper undercurrent of hope that someone, somewhere, will emerge who is different, who we can believe in again. President Obama, during his first campaigns, drew enormously on this wave of sentiment. The optimism surrounding the young Duke and Duchess of Cambridge is another reflection of this desire for public figures we can look up to. The massive outpouring of global admiration and support for Malala Yousafzai – the courageous young Pakistani girl who stood up to the Taliban in the name of education and freedom – reveals a world that, despite its cynicism, is still holding out for a hero.
No modern leader has lived up to – and exceeded – these expectations more than Nelson Mandela. After 27 years in prison, he preached reconciliation with his oppressors. After suffering a half century of racial intolerance and violence, he built a new ‘rainbow nation’. After having South Africa's presidency practically thrust upon him, he graciously but adamantly surrendered it after one term so he could spend more time with his family and engage "in quiet reflection". Even at 94 and in frail health, he serves as the strongest possible counterpoint – and corrective – to the idea that there are no real heroes left.
When he was sentenced to life in prison in 1964, Mr. Mandela declared: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities… It is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
No one has ever doubted this. That is why not just South Africa, but the whole world is now praying for his recovery.