The tributes are pouring in from around the globe in memory of Nelson Mandela.
And so it should be. If humanity is fortunate, someone of Mandela’s stature comes along every generation or so.
Mandela was that rare combination of determination, idealism, practicality and humility that allowed him to make a major difference in the course of human events. He did so with moral persuasion, not armed force.
When he died ... in South Africa at age 95, the world lost its most respected statesman. Even though he no longer held the position of president in his nation, his reputation there and around the globe was undeniable.
Today, it’s easy to forget the pitfalls facing South Africa as it transitioned from white-dominated apartheid to majority rule. It was a situation ripe for bloodshed and/or dictatorship.
But for various reasons — the most dominant among them Mandela’s personality - South Africa did not go this route. Yes, there were problems, and some still persist. Yet Mandela helped South Africa to chart a more peaceful course than one might have expected.
As a result of this, Mandela became a figure of almost religious significance. He rejected that notion, preferring a modest stance that no doubt raised his stature even higher.
It wasn’t always this way. In his younger days, Mandela took a more radical stance against apartheid, and it cost him years in prison. Yet from the unlikely position of his jail cell, Mandela became the voice of freedom and justice in South Africa.
In the end, it was a voice that could not be ignored.
There is a danger in elevating Mandela on a pedestal that’s too high. It’s something that would have concerned him.
Doing so creates the impression that other people cannot follow in his footsteps, that Mandela was so exceptional that others shouldn’t attempt to emulate him.