The great man theory—the idea that one person may be singularly responsible for events that lead to seismic changes in history—is an uneasy sell, one that fell out of favour sometime in the 20th century. Change happens for a multitude of reasons, and leaders, while important, have limited influence on how things unfold. But as the tributes to anti-Apartheid leader Nelson Mandela suggest, there was at least one man without whom the South African nation might look very different today.
From the moment of his release after nearly 28 years of incarceration in 1990, it was apparent that Mandela held the moral authority in a nation whose predominantly white-minority government had lost all legitimacy. Perhaps it was inevitable that political authority would follow, but the manner in which the transition from Apartheid to democracy was to be achieved was rather more unclear. It was then that Mandela became a legend; in eschewing violence, in suggesting that he bore no bitterness towards his captors, he pointed the path to a peaceful transfer of power, one marked not by revenge or reprisal, but by channelling the anger from long years of repression into constructive nation-building. The famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whatever the questions over its success, offered a different model for how the fissures and divisions in a post-conflict society could begin to be mended.
Mandela’s awesome aura was painstakingly acquired through his years of struggle, and he was not shy about wielding his saintly image—even while decrying it—to achieve political goals. No one could engineer a transfer of power of this magnitude without also being a shrewd politician, and it is this aspect that is often forgotten in the light of his halo. That is a pity, because only a principled politician could dream of a rainbow nation—and possess the skills to bring it to fruition.