Five Nelson Mandela tributes that will change how you think

December 9, 2013

REUTERS/Charles Platiau

There has been no shortage of remembrances about Nelson Mandela since his death on Dec. 5. Icon, leader, radical, luminary--the life of former South African president has been memorialized in endless ways in recent days. And for good reason: His remarkable influence on both his country and the world feels unparalleled when compared with today's political and activist leaders, heightening the sense of loss.

But doing justice to the life of a man who has inspired so many by his own actions--not to mention by his powerful words and speeches--is no easy task. Amid the deluge of celebrity essays and standard-fare obituaries, we highlight a few compelling tributes to this extraordinary leader that shouldn't be missed.

The personal essay: In an eloquently written piece that critiques today's world leaders for their lack of long-term vision, Swarthmore College professor Timothy Burke, who specializes in African history, begins his blog post listing various milestones in his life and the impact Mandela had on them. But that's only a jumping-off point for a searing essay addressed to those now falling over themselves to memorialize Mandela's life. "When you say, 'He was a great statesman,' credit what that means," Burke writes. "It means that he looked ahead, kept his eyes on the prize, and tried to do what needed doing, whether that meant taking up arms, or playing chess, or making a friendly connection with a potentially friendly jailer. If you’re going to say it, then credit first that there might be great leaders (and great movements) where you right now see only terrorism or revolution or disorder."

Burke's message: "Mourn the statesman and the revolutionary and the terrorist and the neoliberal and the ethicist and the pragmatist and the saint and don’t you dare try to discard or remove any part of that whole. Celebrate him? Sure, but then make sure you’re willing to consider emulating him."

The letter of appeal: There have been many good reminders written over the past few days of the ways in which Mandela was misunderstood: He was not the saint, nor the revolutionary, nor simply the "world’s kindly white-haired grandfather" that many of the celebrations of his life have depicted. Still, few spoke as directly--or went as viral--as this piece by writer Musa Okwonga. Addressed to the "revisionists" who "will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X," Okwonga's sharp critique of those who try to make Mandela a god or ignore the country South Africa has become stands out amid the gauzy coverage. "You didn’t break him in life," Okwonga writes, "and you won’t shape him in death."

The obituary: One piece you have to read for its comprehensive look at Mandela's life is Bill Keller's 6500-word obit in the New York Times. Keller, the paper's former executive editor and its Johannesburg bureau chief in the early 1990s, told CNN Sunday that he wrote the first draft eight years ago (his wife tweeted that it took him 20 years to write).

It includes comments from a 2007 interview with Mandela for the obituary in which he was "openly scornful" about his successor--comments Mandela required the Times not to publish until after his death--and answered the question of how he could keep hatred in check after everything he had endured. His answer, writes Keller, "was almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate."

The meditation: Unlike probably any other tribute you'll read about Mandela, this essay from Nigerian-American author Teju Cole takes a single photo of Mandela, shot while he was on Robbens Island, and uses it as an impressionistic glimpse into the years of imprisonment Mandela faced, the hypocrisy of many who praise his life now, and the forces that have created some of our most revered hero-leaders. "White supremacy has its uses," Cole writes. "Because of its great care and its thoughtful strategy, because of the tireless way it hoards its hatred, it is good at making heroes. Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Desmond Tutu: what would our lives have meant without theirs? No wheel moves without friction."

The poem: Maya Angelou unveiled a tribute poem to Nelson Mandela she wrote "on behalf of the American people" and at the request of the U.S. State Department. Though it reads at times as much like a letter to the South African people or a sentimental brief biography of his life, in Angelou's words, it still comes across moving and heartfelt. Just as worth noting is Angelou's interview with CBS about Mandela and the poem, in which she shared thoughts about Mandela's impact ("he showed us how liberating it is to forgive") and her remembrances of Mandela from the years she spent living in Africa ("he had a compliment to give to everybody, including my housekeeper and doorman. It was amazing. A gentle giant, he was.")

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

What Nelson Mandela had to say about leadership

Martin Luther King's other great speeches

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor | December 6, 2013