Nelson Mandela Was Most Of All A Good Man His remarkable personality was mostly about benevolence, grace and a genuine sense of humor

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By Paolo von Schirach

December 16, 2013

PRETORIA – Purely by accident I happened to be here in Pretoria, South Africa, on December 15, the day of Nelson Mandela’s burial. Beyond the official ceremonies and the predictable eulogies, it has been really interesting to watch various special programs on South African TV that gave a vivid portrait of this rather extraordinary man.

Great Leader

Extraordinary, yes; but not for the obvious reasons. Of course Mandela was a famous African National Congress (ANC) political activist, and a political prisoner who endured 28 years of incarceration in really harsh conditions. And then he emerged from prison as the ANC national leader who led the transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994.

We know all that. And this is most impressive. But, while historically significant, all these incredible achievements do not really capture Mandela’s real gifts.

Good Man

Mandela truly believed in his vision. It would and should be possible to build a multi racial democracy in South Africa, a country torn by racial prejudice and deep lines of demarcation between the White Minority and the Black Majority. This is the man who easily talked to and worked with his former White oppressors, being gracious and kind to all of them. This is the man who had lunch with the judge who sent him to prison. This is the man who paid a visit to the widow of the main architect of South Africa’s horrible apartheid legislation. The same legislation that sent him to prison for a huge chunk of his life.

And this was not about Machiavellian political calculation. Mandela really believed that it was possible to create a new pluralistic society in deeply divided South Africa. And he went about promoting this vision not by preaching but by personally engaging people. What was most convincing was his sincerity, his simple charm, mixed with profound dignity and grace.  

A sense of humor

Beyond that, the various stories and testimonials I watched on TV show us a man who had a great sense of humor, who liked telling jokes, who was naturally gracious and who wanted to help children. As he said to his friends: “I am not a Prophet; I just want to serve”. And then there were his personal matters. His highly publicized divorce. His third marriage, and so on. In many respects, Mandela was a normal man, with his faults and his weaknesses. 

Benevolence is his legacy

All in all, my impression is that Mandela was mostly a true Good Man. His great legacy, not just to South Africa but to humanity, is his smiling face and his message of reconciliation between former enemies. As he said once to one of his daughters: “No child comes into this world with hatred in his heart. Hatred is learnt. As children can learn hatred, they can also learn love”. Well said, Tata Mandela. I wish we were all so wise to take these simple truth seriously.

No hatred, no conflict.

Indeed, it would be nice to think of a world in which people, without making a great effort, had a naturally benevolent attitude towards one another. A world in which common sense and fairness would drive negotiations and a world in which we could be animated by empathy and good feelings towards one another.

Will there be others?

As one South African journalist put it, Mandela’s story is totally unique and thus not repeatable. Indeed. In a way, this is how it has to be. We all have our own individual stories. But it would be nice to think that the incredibly rich spiritual legacy left by this Good Man somehow could work like a magic fertilizer that would help yield a crop of other human beings inspired by his principles.

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