The eulogies, commentaries and historical reflections on former South African President Nelson Mandela all cast him as a unique figure that belongs to the whole world as an inspiration. Indeed former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly said, ”President Mandela’s life is the closest thing we have to proof of God.”

One of his unique attributes was his generosity of spirit, always at pains to deflect praise from the one – himself – for defeating the evil of apartheid so that praise would flow to the many. Mandela did not want to claim for himself even the signal accomplishment of his presidency – victory over apartheid without retribution against the white government that had imposed this vicious system. That government, to speak only of its impact on Mandela’s personal life, had imprisoned him for 27 years and persecuted his family. However, he bent all his extraordinary political gifts towards reconciliation. He told a journalist in Johannesburg in 2000, that it was the “leadership of the ANC”, “who spent 30 years in exile or went underground or were in prison (and who) have no time for revenge. They know they pass through life only once and want to use (their time) to solve the problems of their country. That is why we avoided bloodshed and confounded the prophets of doom.”

Nelson Mandela was a great leader and a good man and unassailably heroic. The circumstances and key events of his life were indeed unique. Apartheid was a unique as well as unjust political system, riveting the world’s attention. His assent to power was also unique and riveting. Once in power he guided South Africa almost miraculously to a peaceful transition to democracy.

But what if Mandela is right to insist that we not see him as unique? We can still see him as an extraordinary human being, but it is for us to follow him in seeing greatness in many. It is almost as if we don’t want to say that there are others among us who are wise and good, and smart innovators and actors who can change the direction of history to benefit mankind. To be truly the inspiration he should be to us, we must feed the Mandela in others (and ourselves) instead of denying that force. Mandela should not sit at a safe distance from us. We need to get to work and follow him.

Elizabeth Spiro Clark
December 6, 2013