The Enormity of Mandela's Struggle

The Enormity of Mandela's Struggle

His achievements and moral authority gain their true stature when seen next to the history of apartheid.

Mandela combined the traits of heart and mind to exercise several (very) different variants of leadership. He was a political dissident and an insurgent. He was a prisoner of conscience. True to his given Xhosa name, Rolihlahla, or troublemaker— Nelson was the English name a teacher gave him on his first day at school—he created a great deal of trouble for the apartheid regime because he symbolized its injustice and cruelty as well as the possibility of defying it. He was the conciliator and the co-architect of the passage from one order to a new one. That process could have easily failed and set off a spiral of bloodshed. He was, as president, the chief executive of a problem-laden country and initiated various much-needed reforms. He is a revered elder statesman with global cachet and stature.

Few leaders have been able to play such varied parts in the drama of politics. The traits that are necessary to do so are seldom embodied in any one individual. Nelson Mandela had the intellect, character, and style to move from one demanding role to another. For that and more he will, long after death claims him, be remembered as one of history’s most compelling figures.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the author, most recently, of The End of Alliances.

Image: Flickr/Thierry Ehrmann. CC BY 2.0.