Saturday 7 December 2013

Who is a hero?

"Who is a hero?  He who conquers temptation."
Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides)

Nelson Mandela died, and the mainstream media is once again indulging in one of its boring rituals, bestowing on him the secular equivalent of a Catholic sanctification.  In time, as it always happens, less conformist minds will begin to chip away at the myth, revealing the man behind the statue – a man made of patches of light and shadow, like all men.  Yet despite that, I believe that the legend of ‘Madiba’ will endure through decades and centuries, up there with the likes of Churchill, Ben Gurion and Gandhi, in the secular pantheon of leaders who almost single-handedly shaped the course of human history.

Mandela led his people to emancipation.  Had he done just that, he would have done enough to earn a place in history books.  But I believe that that was not his greatest achievement.  Emancipation, I believe, would have come anyway, with Mandela or with a lesser man.  Call it Apartheid, Nazism or slavery, a system that places human beings in hierarchies based on ‘racial’ characteristics is an aberration that so offends our sense of justice that it simply cannot endure.  The only question is – what toll in blood and suffering will it demand before it’s sent to history’s rubbish bin.

It was in that that Mandela showed his true greatness – and it’s for that, I’m convinced, that he will be remembered.  He managed to dismantle the Apartheid regime (or, rather, cause it to dismantle itself) without drenching the country in blood.  If we remember today the massacres in Congo, Rwanda and Darfur, but not in South Africa, that is Mandela’s real legacy.  It would have been so easy!  Black-skinned people were faced in South Africa with a system that questioned their very humanity; that assigned them by ‘law’ not just to an inferior status, but to a sub-human one.  What can be more humiliating?  What can be more revolting, more hurtful to the very essence of the human soul?  It would have been so easy to react to that humongous affront with righteous rage and to channel that rage into unstoppable butchery; it would have been so easy to decide, faced with that colossal injury, that the life of every white or – at the very least – that of every supporter of Apartheid was forfeit; it would have been so easy to find release to the pressure felt in millions of souls by opening the flood gates of violence.  And even after Apartheid was finally defeated, even after it wrapped itself up in shame, it would have been so easy to succumb to the 'natural' wish for retribution, to seek ‘justice’ and find revenge, to slacken in blood the thirst for dignity.

I am not – as you surely have picked up by now – given to sanctifying mere human beings.  But by rising above all that, by finding the strength of soul to conquer justified indignation, by finding the incredible generosity of seeing humanity even in those who questioned his, Mandela showed himself to be above the vast majority of mortals.

And there is something else that’s remarkable about Mandela: his unflinching, almost super-human loyalty to democracy.  Sure, while faced with the mind-numbing atrocity of Apartheid, he seemed to flirt with Communism.  But his soul knew right from wrong.  Again, it would have been so easy to become 'president for life'.  So many other ‘revolutionary leaders’ succumbed to that temptation!  Didn’t he dedicate decades of his life to his country?  Didn’t he risk everything?  Did he not succeed overwhelmingly?  Did he not know best what was good for the country?  But Mandela conquered that temptation – if his righteous soul even allowed him to contemplate it.  He stepped down.  But that was not the end of his trials.  Revered as father of the nation, his every word carried the significance of a decree.  How did he find the strength of keeping silent while lesser men seemed to squander his legacy?  It would have been so easy to succumb to that temptation; a public word of criticism from Mandela would have resounded louder than a slap in the face.  Privately, he expressed such criticism in bitter, unforgiving terms; but publicly, he abstained – understanding that democracy required him to hold his piece even in the face of outrage.  What a man!

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