Nelson Mandela, the African freedom fighter who followed his long struggle against racist rule in South Africa with resolute reconciliation with his former oppressors, and whose life came to be regarded, almost universally, as the finest articulation of the human spirit, died Thursday. He was 95.
South African President Jacob Zuma, a fellow inmate of Mandela’s on the apartheid-era prison of Robben Island, announced Mandela’s death on state television just before midnight. “Our beloved Nelson Mandela, the founder of the democratic nation of South Africa, has departed,” said Zuma. “He passed peacefully in the company of his family around 20:50 on December 5, 2013. He is now resting. He is now at peace. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father.”
Mandela’s death was not unexpected. He suffered from a recurrent lung condition and had been admitted to hospital numerous times in the past two and a half years. As his condition deteriorated, South Africans, in particular, have come to accept the inevitable and despite his stature, his departure is likely have little effect on South African stability. Mandela retired from public life a decade ago and while he promoted charitable causes and international conflict mediation well into his eighties he gave up politics when he retired after a single term as South Africa’s first black president in 1998.
The hole Mandela leaves in the fabric of humanity, however, is immeasurable. For decades he has been an almost universal inspiration. President Obama, in Senegal in June this year, said Mandela’s fight against injustice and the anti-apartheid struggle “gave me a sense of what is possible in the world” and “strength to persevere.” Mandela was a “hero for the world,” he continued. “If and when he passes from this place, one thing we all know is his legacy will linger on through the ages.” In his address late Thursday, Zuma reflected similar sentiments. “His tireless struggle for freedom earned the respect of the world. His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him our love.” In this “moment of our greatest sorry,” said Zuma, South Africa’s thoughts were with his family. “They have sacrificed much and endured much that our people could be free.”
Zuma said he had directed that flags be hung at half mast until a state funeral. That event is expected to attract an unprecedented assembly of world leaders – from politics, religion and royalty, business, sport and the arts – to pay their respects to Mandela. Details are expected in the coming days but are predicted to include a public memorial in the South African capital, Pretoria, followed by a private family funeral in Mandela’s ancestral home in Qunu in the country’s impoverished Eastern Cape.
As well as an occasion to reflect on Mandela’s achievements, the days leading up to the funeral will undoubtedly also prompt some uncomfortable assessment of how South Africa and, in particular, his successors in the ruling African National Congress (A.N.C.) have failed to life up to his legacy. The party has become a byword for corruption and gangster criminality and the manner in which it abandoned millions of supporters to lives of destitution in a scramble for personal enrichment has provoked rising unrest. The contrast with the rest of the continent is also sharp. Economies in the rest of Africa are taking off. But South Africa, for so long the uncontested continental powerhouse, is beset by waves of violent labor protests and a political leadership trapped in endless political drift by internal party fights.
There is no question that Mandela’s iconography long ago took leave of his human reality, something Mandela himself often protested against. Equally, there is no doubt of the global symbolism he came to hold for all humanity. Part of the explanation for that was how, despite decades of suffering, including 27 years in prison, his life embodied that most fundamental human quality: hope. “I am fundamentally an optimist,” he reflected in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lies defeat and death.” It is in such sentiments that Mandela will live on.