Nelson Mandela’s true genius was shown here, in co-opting the Springboks rugby team, previous whites-only, as representative of all South Africans.
As one Cape-based historian put it: “The tragedy of South Africa is that it has always been ruled – and still is – by elites which seek their own group self-interest rather than that of the country as a whole. Only when it at last acquires a ruling elite which thinks and feels for the whole of this beloved country will this sad cycle change. This is what guarantees Nelson Mandela a special place in South African hearts. He alone for a brief and precious moment seemed to promise at least the possibility of a common South Africanism.”
Many will try to claim parallels with Mr Mandela – in particular, Irish Nationalists like to try to compare his campaign with their own. Yet in a country where even the act of voting was limited to one racial minority, Mr Mandela had no democratic alternative to the use of force, whereas Irish Nationalists always did (as the SDLP always pointed out until recently).
No, Mr Mandela’s genius was in fact to do precisely the opposite of Irish Nationalists, insofar as any parallel is legitimate at all, and put aside bitterness and revenge for the common good. For example, he adopted the Springboks where many in the ANC wanted to ban them (most wanted at the very least the emblem and shirt colour changed). He chose not to speak in terms of “them and us” the way Irish Nationalists do, instead emphasising a pan-South Africanism. He reached out not so as to make “the other side” guilty, but to try to create a country in which all could feel comfortable. His true genius, often, lay in challenging people successfully on their own terms.
Mr Mandela’s record as President, by the way, was far from perfect. After all, most people he governed with had never even voted before, far less run a government. However, as a bridge-builder, his contribution to his country, and arguably to the world in modern times, is unparalleled.