Nelson Mandela once rescued me from a very dangerous situation.
I was in Egypt, covering the Egyptian Revolution in 2011. My taxi had taken a wrong turn, and I found myself at a checkpoint manned by pro-Mubarak thugs, who were making something of a habit from arresting and assaulting foreign journalists. They forced me out of the vehicle at knifepoint, and started shouting at me. “Where you from? You England? America?” I gave them my passport. “South Africa? What is South Africa?”
I tried to explain – World Cup, Bafana Bafana, Nelson Mandela. Only Mandela struck a chord. “Nelson Mandela! He good man. In Egypt, we love Nelson Mandela.” With that, they returned the passport, apologized for being rude and let me on my way.
Even here, in the heart of a brutal dictator’s regime, Mandela’s name meant something and carried real weight; his legacy was potent enough to earn this South African citizen a get-out-of-jail-free card.
I am reminded of this story in the midst of the outpouring of obituaries and tributes dedicated to Mandela coming from all over the world in the wake of his passing. Mandela was not just a South African hero, as much as South Africans like to lay claim to him; he was a global icon, a truly world-straddling figure that changed lives everywhere – invariably for the better, and sometimes in the most unlikely places. Losing him is not just South Africa’s loss; it is the world’s loss.
World leaders have been quick to offer their condolences, as they always do at the passing of a former colleague. Of these, it is extraordinary how many have strayed from the pro-forma diplomat-speak templates to offer what feels like expressions of genuine grief.
US President Barack Obama, for instance, credits Mandela with kick-starting his political career (imagine, for a moment, if someone had told a young Madiba that his actions would inspire a US President, and that that president would be black). “I cannot imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set,”said Obama. “Nelson Mandela lived for that ideal, and he made it real. He achieved more than could be expected of any man. And today’s he’s gone home. He no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages.”
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By Simon Allison – Daily Maverick