After ten days of mourning, what was there left to say about the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela that has not already been expressed with eloquence and emotion by those who knew him?
Yet it was the private, traditional Xhosa burial at his ancestral home in Qunu in the Eastern Cape yesterday that millions in South Africa and around the world will have found the most solemn and moving, and will most remember.
There was living proof of the enormous distance that Mandela had travelled in his life, from the most humble and unpromising beginnings to become a global political icon.
For anyone witnessing those scenes, it was impossible not to have been struck by the impossibility of his life and achievement. Everything, from the unsparing landscape to the necessities of day-to-day life in which he grew up, rendered the Mandela story ever more improbable and extraordinary. And that is what drove home the most enduring and universal power of his legacy: the miracle of possibility.
Political systems round the world are constantly gridlocked in the politics of impossibility. Change is ruled out at the earliest stage because it is deemed “politically impossible”. Yet what could have been deemed more impossible in South Africa 50 years ago, that the apartheid system would not just be swept away but that its most eloquent opponent, jailed for 27 years, would become the country’s most celebrated president and feted round the world? The world back then would have shaken its collective head and declared such an outcome absurdly impossible.
But there was a deeper impossibility here at work: that someone without any of the myriad of life advantages enjoyed today could achieve such universal recognition and acclaim. What enabled this transformation was an extraordinary strength of character and a determination to persist, no matter how overwhelming the odds. These were the features that came to prise open the gates of possibility.
Those who argue that personality is of marginal influence in the affairs of nations are silenced by the enormity of the change that Mandela achieved and did so in the face of widespread predictions of social dislocation and civil war.
There is certainly no magic wand. South Africa today faces formidable problems. Millions still live in acute poverty, income inequality is marked and crime and corruption are manifest. But at least the country now has the ability to work jointly in seeking solutions.
His legacy centres on the importance of the individual in effecting change. And in the face of impossible odds, his life was testimony to a truth of which millions round the world will be inspired in their struggle for a better life. We can come from nothing and be made to endure all manner of sacrifice. But we can still be masters of our fate. And therein lies the miracle of possibility.
Excluded pupils jail plan worth trying
Pupil disruption in schools blights the learning ability of the well-behaved as well as the miscreants. And teachers often feel helpless in their attempts to deal with the problem. Now Dundee City Council has an innovative plan to see if it might have a salutary effect: taking pupils whose behaviour has resulted in them being excluded from classes on a visit to a maximum security prison.
A total of 96 children in every 1,000 in the city were excluded from lessons in 2012-13, the worst exclusion rate in the country and three times the national average. Almost a third of exclusions involved either violence or a threat of violence, including the use of weapons or threat of sexual attacks. So some fresh thinking is clearly necessary.
The council is now considering a pilot scheme taking unruly pupils in one of its schools on a visit to maximum security Perth Prison. It houses murderers, drug addicts and other violent offenders. The clear message is “You don’t want to end up here” and the hope is that seeing the prison at first hand may encourage the schoolchildren back on the rails.
Too drastic and shocking? Some teachers would doubtless like to go further and suggest a trial period of imprisonment. But providing parents are informed and agree to the visit, this seems a scheme worth trying.
Many schools do not flinch from showing their pupils the health effects of drink and drug addiction and the appalling damage they can inflict on the human body. If this helps drive home the dangers of drug and alcohol dependence, might a prison visit not equally drive home the consequences of unchecked anti- social behaviour?