WHEN the news about Nelson Mandela’s death broke last week, there was an initial buzz amongst my I’m A Celebrity-obsessed children.
They understood the former South African president was a towering figure, who fought injustice, ended apartheid and created a better world, so they trooped through to the kitchen to watch the initial reports, but it wasn’t very long before they got bored and drifted back to the inanities of the Australian jungle.
Though I don’t doubt they appreciate Mandela’s achievements, they seemed less gripped by footage of his release in 1990 – which, along with fall of the Berlin Wall, I consider to be the most moving of my lifetime – than they were by the coverage of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech this year.
And I suppose, when you think about it, that’s understandable. Martin Luther King was a great speaker who preached peace and gave his life for the cause. That’s a more clear-cut and obviously dramatic narrative for a teenager than a former freedom fighter who survived jail, won over his enemies and united his country, and then died at the ripe old age of 95, even if the latter is more impressive. Mandela may have had a 1,000-volt smile, and been capable of uttering words so profound they swayed previously immutable hearts, but he lacked the oratory skills that make for the most potent TV coverage.
Mandela’s longevity has meant that weaknesses in his leadership – his failure to effectively tackle Aids, for instance, or to speak out against his flawed successors – have had time not only to emerge but to be openly discussed in a way King’s rarely are.
And then there is the question of relevance. What does Mandela’s achievement mean to children born in the post-apartheid era? Living in a multicultural country where racism, though still present, tends to be oblique, and viewing South Africa through the prism of the last World Cup, does his long march to freedom seem, to today’s teenagers, to belong to a bygone age?
I hope not. Because each stage of Mandela’s struggle against apartheid has much to teach our children about standing up for what they believe in, about dignity in extremis, about reconciliation and learning always to look for the best in themselves and other people, even those people who embody values they despise. Even those people who are oppressing them.
By standing up to his own supporters, by refusing to seek revenge against white people on his release, and, later, by wearing a Springbok jersey to present the Rugby World Cup to a team that was once a symbol of white, apartheid rule in an attempt to engender national unity, Mandela demonstrated that you don’t always have to take the line of least resistance to keep detractors onside and that, however frustrating, a negotiated settlement is often the only route to lasting peace. Where else are our young people going to pick up these messages? Certainly not from our own blow-with-the-wind politicians for whom the quick fix and the easy soundbite almost always trump the long, hard slog.
Reflecting on the life of the former ANC leader, who kept on believing in the impossible right through his long incarceration, and who toiled tirelessly to achieve it, will also teach them about the power of hope and the rewards of hard work and endurance.
From their own history too, children from Glasgow can take some inspiration. They belong to a place which gave Mandela the Freedom of the City when he was still regarded with suspicion, which opposed apartheid before it was fashionable to do so, and which had the chutzpah to change St George’s Place to Nelson Mandela Place just so the South African Consulate would be forced to have his name in its address. It would be good to think they might have inherited some of that spirit of resistance. It’s important that, even as the world mourns Mandela’s death, our children share in the mass reappraisal of his life, as his struggle is as pertinent today as it was 25 years ago.
Apartheid may have been overcome, but injustice continues to rear its ugly head across the world. Whether it’s the fight for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, or against Russia’s crackdown on homosexuality, or the rising racism against the Roma in western Europe, there are plenty of wars still to be waged. Closer to home too, there is no shortage of inequalities to be addressed. Child poverty, the bedroom tax, sexual harassment and the curtailment of our personal freedoms are all gauntlets waiting to be picked up by those with the stomach for a challenge and the insight to understand that real change doesn’t happen overnight.
A handful of young people, most notably Malala Yousafzai, have already shown themselves ready to accept Mandela’s torch. She has demonstrated that a girl’s right to an education is an ideal which she hopes to live for and to achieve, but for which, if needs be, she is prepared to die.
But even those who are not destined for such epic battles could improve the world in their own small way by emulating his magnanimity, tenacity and stoicism.
Though Mandela’s stature and impact on the course of history is unlikely to be matched in our time, it is vital for our children to have something great to aspire to. In a world with few heroes, they need a role model to live up to. As we say our last goodbyes, it is impossible to view Mandela as anything other than a glowing testament to man’s capacity for good. With so many long marches still to be embarked upon, his shining spirit can light the way for the next generation. «