There Goes Trouble

The late Nelson Mandela was known by several names: Madiba, his clan name; Tata, meaning father; and prisoner #466/64 among them.  His given name at birth was Rolihlahla, meaning one who pulls the branch from the tree, or “troublemaker.”  If Mr. Mandela, in his long life, caused plenty of trouble, his most amazing accomplishment was to keep trouble with a capital T from overwhelming his country.  He was, it has been said, not just the George Washington of South Africa but also its James Madison, as the years just before his release from prison and then the four years between his release and his election as president were spent in long negotiations over the shape of the political and legal system that would guide South Africa after apartheid.

Mandela’s presidential successors in South Africa have displayed all-too-human failings, but Mandela himself should hardly shoulder much of the blame for that, I believe.  He did have the “good fortune,” though, as Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker, that “his moment inverted the demands commonly placed upon a politician’s shoulders.  His country needed him to publicly and explicitly act on his firmest convictions, not bend bend them on the altar of expediency.  Mandela emerged at that rare point in history where idealism and pragmatism were practically indistinguishable.”  To put it another way, Nelson Mandela stands almost alone in living memory for being master of both the moral high ground and the political high ground.

And with quite the puckish sense of humor: upon meeting one of the Spice Girls in the late nineties, Mandela said that “I don’t want to be emotional, but this is one of the greatest moments of my life.”  The Onion might have made Mandela smile when they paid tribute, exaggerating just a little, to “the first politician in recorded history to actually be missed.”