What makes a person great depends very much upon the field in which they exercise their influence. Some areas of human industry require wider recognition in order to be considered valid while others rely much less on broad acquiescence as a measure of achievement. The scale used to decide whether your name makes it into the history books depends essentially upon which area of human endeavour you choose to strive in.
For politicians the measure must surely be the number of people who decide to give you their support. As the Western world holds it’s breath in respect for the passing of Nelson Mandela, I thought it might be pertinent to look at the part we all played in his success. Not in a narcissistic attempt to take the credit which is Nelson’s own, but to see if there is something more we can learn from the example of his achievements.
I cling wholeheartedly to the belief that greatness can be found in the everyday and the ordinary in many, many lives around us, yet I have to recognise that most of these inspiring folk are feted to remain relatively unsung outside their own social circle. Some, sadly, may even go un-recognised in their own communities and lifetimes. This is a terrible waste of opportunities by which we could all gain a more tolerant, just society.
This lack of support is less unusual when one widens the net to the world of the arts. How many authors, painters, sculptors and playwrights are ‘discovered’ long after their death? Ignored and sometimes even vehemently rejected in life, only to be resurrected by the next generation as ‘important’, ‘significant’ or subject to that other chilling disclaimer, ‘before their time’; their paltry initial popularity is seldom a barrier to future recognition.
Yet for a politician to lay claim to the above adjectives, while being unable to raise more than a handful of followers is a nonsense. In order for a politician to be able to realise change they must recognise and seek the support of the population they are hoping to assist. Perhaps there are cases when a truly un-willing person may have been brought to power as a direct response to the will of the populace – the situation reversed – but such cases are rare.
A politician’s career, in the true sense of the word, depends upon how many people will listen and adhere to their views.
(Even the dictators of the past had to have sufficient hold on a significant number of the population – or military – to enable their claim on power to be realised; although I would hesitate to call them true politicians. I would draw a distinction between the wielding of power and the exertion of influence. The writings of Lenin for example, exercised great influence although he himself did not live long enough to wield great personal power.)
The past few days have been full of praise and plaudits for the great man, Nelson Mandela and his achievements, all of which I agree with and applaud as fitting and moving tribute to one at the heart of seemingly impossible change in South Africa. And I hardly need to add to my word-count the influence Nelson Mandela went on to have upon the world community through his messages of peace and reconciliation – others have already put it far more eloquently than I.
As the media messages and tributes continue however, I believe we all have an opportunity to learn from his example. And strangely, the thing I hope to take forward from this week of international mourning is my own responsibility to support the best of the world’s politicians.
Nelson Mandela did not exist in a vacuum. He gained many supporters, through his ideology and personal integrity. But his views truly gained validity when they began to be shared, discussed and, most essentially, upheld by millions, rather than hundreds of people around the world. It was the perspicacity of the world community – and that includes you and me – to recognise that here was a good person asking for something good. Here was a cause that was just. Here was a person who could be trusted to see the issue through.
So we gave him our support. I would argue that it was the support and recognition of Nelson Mandela by the international community – from small local support groups to international agencies to prime ministers and heads of state – that is as much responsible for the change in South Africa as Mr. Mandela’s calm persistence and adherence to his vision.
(I admit to feeling a slightly absurd pride that we managed to keep Nelson Mandela alive too. He was allowed the longevity he needed to pursue and complete his goals. No car bombs, no home-grown assassinations, no un-requited promise for the pundits to mull over. Such was the support of the people that Nelson Mandela was able to deliver on his promise.)
And the good news is that we can do it again. If we can be bothered. Our communities are full of people with vision. People who already give their lives to help others or who believe in a cause that has the potential to bring equity to our lives; or to bring justice to those around us and to those who cannot fight for it themselves.
All we need to do is to support them. Turn out for them. Campaign for them. March for them if necessary. And if we should find a politician or political group that is prepared to fight for these things too, we should support them, almost regardless of which colour or party name they go by. It may take some looking but I know they are out there.
So, with the greatest respect to Mr Mandela’s memory, I don’t think we should consider him unusual. What was unusual was the amount of support the rest of the Western world was prepared to give him – in the face of his detractors and critics. What was unusual was that whole countries and their leaders were prepared to stand up for his ideas, even when he could not.
There is no doubt that Nelson Mandela had a gift for reconciliation. But each of us has the gift of support for those who seek similar ideals in our local and wider communities. We just need to decide to stand up for them too, to give them our visible and material support again and again until they, like Mr. Mandela, can rest from a job well done.
- Politicians who opposed Nelson Mandela and supported Apartheid (rollingout.com)
- A Lesson From Nelson Mandela/ Martin Rosenfeld, JD (njmediator.wordpress.com)
- Nelson Mandela: Archbishop of Canterbury to lead Trafalgar Square service (standard.co.uk)