Nelson Mandela: like all saints, he challenges us

After Nelson Mandela’s death yesterday, the news media and social networks are awash with adulation. One commentator said that he was the nearest thing we had to a modern saint. Personally I don’t go in for personal adulation of anybody, even saints, though I understand the sentiments. I greatly admired Mandela. The saint comment is apt. He shows that virtue, wisdom and above all humility of a saint. But saints should challenge us, as well provide us with objects of admiration. I can think of two ways that he is challenging conventional wisdom.

The first applies to the developing world, in particular. Mandela shows that if you really want to be admired by the world, you should use power with restraint, and show personal humility. Countless leaders across the world are doing the opposite – just look as Sri Lanka or Iraq. Here we see attempts to oppress minority communities, seeking revenge for past wrongs, the stirring up of divisions, and also the self-aggrandisement of those in power. Mandela acquired his stellar influence and reputation by doing the opposite. If only more world leaders would seek to emulate him.

The second challenge is to the developed world in particular. In face of the oppression and injustice of the Apartheid regime, Mandela did not discourage violent opposition, and indeed supported the “armed struggle” as it is euphemistically referred to. He did not glorify it, and his distaste for violent action was plain. But it cuts across our conventional wisdom that “terrorism” is never justified, which in practice means any violent challenge to the status quo. We urge non-violent resistance, following such icons as Mahatma Gandhi. Mandela himself was condemned by many in the developed world as a terrorist. And yet it is easy to see how this line of reasoning can be used to condemn any serious resistance to oppression; peaceful protest can simply be ignored, with enough brute force. The state of the Palestinians in Greater Israel is a case in point. However much we hate the apparently random attacks on civilians, what peaceful outlet for protest are the Palestinians being offered? In that instance, of course, the violence by Palestinians has not achieved anything useful – but we are left with a very troubling question of how the Israeli state will ever take them seriously.

Mandela did not eschew violent resistance as a last resort. But he did show restraint when he had the opportunity to exert the power of the state. To honour his memory we should reflect on these related principles.