Yesterday evening (as if anyone could not already know this), the world learned of the death of South African political-activist-turned-president Nelson Mandela, who passed away aged 95 after a long struggle with a lung infection.
Predictably – and, I might add, justifiably given his stature – the internet and social media have been alive with news and comment about Mandela’s life and legacy today. There’s probably little of substance that I can add to what’s already been said, but I thought it would be appropriate to offer a few thoughts of my own.
I first heard Mandela’s name on the radio when I was a teenager in the 1980s; for a long time, I had little idea who he was, what he stood for or why he was such an important figure. It was only really after the fall of the apartheid regime and the establishment of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that I began to understand his significance. However, while few would deny the crucial role he played in engineering a peaceful transition to an inclusive democracy, there always remained questions over his past affiliations, and in particular his involvement in a militant group known as MK, which led a sabotage campaign against the apartheid government that resulted in significant numbers of civilian casualties. It was, of course, this association that landed him in prison in 1962; he would not emerge until 27 years later.
Broadly speaking, the reactions I’ve seen on social media to Mandela’s death range from one extreme to the other. While many have been content to commend his achievements, some seem to have accorded him almost godlike status, while others have harked back to his militant days and expressed their frustration at such accolades being heaped upon a “terrorist” and a “murderer”.