Bigger than South Africa

Mamadou Diouf, director of the Institute of African Studies at Columbia, remembers Nelson Mandela — and tells us why the world will, too.

by Mamadou Diouf Published Winter 2013-14
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Photograph by Hans Gedda / Sygma / Corbis

>> To watch the video of Diouf's remarks: http://news.columbia.edu/home/3291

“It always seems impossible until it is done.” — Nelson Mandela

The legacy of Nelson Mandela will be with us for decades to come. The reasons are linked to his own history, to the way he understood power, and to the way he led his long-divided country. This is a man who lived under apartheid, a man who had been locked up for twenty-seven years. Of course, he did not solve all the problems South Africa faced, but Mandela is also bigger than South Africa. He’s bigger than the continent. His legacy is a legacy for all humanity to honor.

This is a man who came out of jail and was ready to talk to the people who jailed him. He was ready — because he was mostly a man of the 1960s, an era defined by radicalism, and you see this driving the charter of the African National Congress. Out of jail, he was able to adjust to a completely new moment — adjust as an individual, but also as a politician. And while most people predicted bloodshed, Mandela single-handedly ensured that South Africa would not go through a racial civil war; that a space was open for negotiation; that a space was open for compromise; that a space was open to invent a new world.

Mandela was behind the idea that it was possible to invent a new world. That it was possible to turn enemies not into friends, but into partners. That it was possible to pull together different memories and multiple heritages to avoid the tensions and confrontations of a history of segregation, violence, and systematic spoliation. Insisting strongly on not forgetting, he advocated forgiveness. He believed that it was possible to reinvent South Africa. A new and ideal South Africa. He kept saying that South Africa was a complex country, and that reconciliation was the only appropriate response to the challenge the country was facing — the only way things should be done.

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