Much of the world is in mourning today, and indeed, for the past several days. The sincere sorrow and genuine celebration is for former South African President Nelson Mandela, dead at age 95. The accolades are astonishing, but I think Mandela deserves something more from us.
The world’s leaders, both past and present, have moved quickly to stand in the aura of this beloved figure of Nelson Mandela, telling us how they were so deeply impacted by him, articulating both their grief and admiration for him. They have universally cited his capacity for leadership through his personal demonstrations of forgiveness, reconciliation, negotiation and humility. They have extolled the importance of his place in history as a result of these postures, and lauded the results that Mandela was able to bring about by being someone who placed the well-being of others before his own health and safety. Indeed, before his very life.
These world leaders have told us of the immense influence that Mandela’s life has had upon them, how they were inspired by his selflessness, moved by his commitment to act in ways that were unconventional, courageous, and full of political risk. For example, U.S. President Barack Obama has confessed that Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement provided the impetus for Obama’s first political action of any kind, a campus protest. Or Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who has been in power since his country’s independence from Britain in 1980 and supported Mandela’s ANC during its struggle against the apartheid regime. Despite himself being accused by critics of increasingly authoritarian rule, Mugabe praised Mandela as a champion of democracy and “an unflinching fighter for justice.” The list of political figures and their tributes to Mandela’s inspiration is as impressive as it is contradictory.
I have neither seen nor heard any remembrance from anyone who has been able or inclined to say, “Mandela was a great man. This world needs more leaders of character and conscience like him and that is why I have chosen the same path.” We have heard nothing like this because it’s not a road easily traveled. And today’s leaders would be hard-pressed to find such a road, even with a map.
Words of admiration and love are gentle to the ear and soothing to our psyches because they remind us of our humanity, however deeply buried it may be within us. We long for stories of people like Mandela because they provide a glimmer of hope that such virtues are still to be found among us. But words of admiration are not enough. They are shallow recompense for someone who has generated hope through the living of his life. The legacy of Nelson Mandela deserves emulation. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the only true form of respect….