Wednesday, December 11, 2013


They came by the many thousands, they were joined by a who's who of the World’s leaders and heads of state and they listened to laudatory speeches, among the best of them by our president.  Mandela — Madiba — is gone, or at least the physicality of him is no more.  Mandela, the father of a nation that took far too long to form, passed from the scene years ago, passed into the fog of infirmity and old age.  The democracy that evolved out of his remarkable journey remains frail and imperfect.  The people in whose name he rose remain largely at the social and economic margin.  His "successors" are that in name only, the present South Africa president was booed at Tuesday's memorial.

Joao Silva's photo from The New York Times
The dream of Madiba is portrayed in Joao Silva's New York Times photo (above) of interracial mourning at his loss.  It is a photo that could not have been taken, much less printed, in South Africa just a relatively short time ago.  Of course that doesn't mean that the post Mandela nation is without racism any more than our own democracy is without it after the election of Obama.  Racism exists in so many places.  I'm just finishing Ari Shavit's My Promised Land (the subject of a future post) and am reminded that, beyond many other issues, racism also plays in the story of an unresolved Israel.

President Obama ended his eulogy with the well-worn cliché that we will never see the likes of a Mandela again.  But of course, clichéd as it may be, the stark fact is that not only will we not see the likes of this man again, human history has seen relatively few like him.  This is not to suggest that Mandela was perfect, something of which Obama reminded us.  Most notably, while clearly explainable, he wasn't the perfect husband or father.  The same can be said about a number of "great" men, but that commonality doesn't change the failure.  Mandela was mortal and it is in that context, the story of greatness in the face of imperfection, that we judge him.

There is no need to retell Madiba's story here — that narrative has been fed to us on overdrive in the last days, as if we needed to hear what we already knew.  Rather, I'd like to reflect on the very sad fact that people like him are far too much the exception when we desperately need them to be more, or at least some of the norm.  Looking out at this world of ours, and particularly at its many trouble spots, the total absence of great leadership stands out like a malignantly sore thumb.  Angela Merkel is probably the most substantive of European leaders and yet there is nothing very special about her, certainly nothing remarkable about her leadership or vision.  Can you remember a single utterance of David Cameron (David who)?  The same can be said for almost everywhere else — the word almost being an exaggeration.  Reading "page" after page (pages are hard to define on an iPad) of Shavit's book one is painfully struck by how very much both Israel and Palestine need great leaders at a time when they are stuck with Bibi Netanyahu and Abu Mazen.

Time Magazine just named Pope Francis its Person-of-the-Year (they don't say "man" any more even though, by their own admission, they have named a scant number of women).  Benedict, the subject of a recent post, looks "great" not necessarily because he objectively earns such a designation, but in contrast to what are very slim pickings.

It is impossible to say for sure how Mandela will be judged a century from now or even 50 years.  How South Africa turns out may impact on his own reputation.  As an agent of change, of upending a very sorry status quo, he likely will come out all right.  Gandhi still looks good all these years later and Martin King is holding up in our own country.  Of course, like all the other icons of greatness, Mandela was just one man in a movement and dependent on both early groundwork and having comrades in the struggle.  We don't travel alone in this world. The thing is, it's hard to think of how South Africa would have turned out without him.  The ANC was there, but his visionary and at times solitary leadership made the difference.  That can also be said of both Gandhi and King.  Perhaps they all come forth when needed, are products of their time, but leaders do make a difference.
Perhaps we muddle through without great leaders, but isn't that the point?   Muddling through just doesn't get the really big jobs done.  Leaderless translates into rudderless and we're all suffering the consequences.  That's what keeps spinning through my head in this week of remembrance. 

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