A Tribute to Nelson Mandela [1918- 2013]

Nelson Mandela changed his country and through it our understanding of what can be achieved by a leader.

Leaders We Deserve commented five years ago [2007] on the impossibility of capturing the essence of his achievements . The post is reproduced here as a tribute.

On August 29th 2007, the great man watched as the wraps came off his [nine foot high] statue in Parliament Square. Fleetingly I thought of statues of others leaders. How art and politics cannot be kept apart, any more than sport and politics could be kept apart in an earlier South Africa. How the downing of statues can be as symbolic an act as their installations.

Why Nelson Mandela doesn’t need a statue

He already is an awesome world-figure, destined for his place in the history. There will be revisions to the story. There always are. Human-scaled blemishes will be revealed to enrich the tale of his struggle in what he termed a long walk to freedom for himself and his country.

I was immensely moved by Mandela’s story in his autobiography. I go back to it from time to time. I remain in awe of what he communicated about his time in prison: ‘Even in the grimmest times … I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but that was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished’. With Mandela, the process is reversed. In his every public action his ‘goodness’ shines through. We search in vain for evidence of wilfulness and vengefulness.

The Charismatic Leader

The idea of the great charismatic leader is increasingly coming under scrutiny. In the 1980s, a tamed-down version of charisma was proposed, as the transformational leader. More recently, the expression post-charismatic leader has emerged, from theological and secular sources.

In this context, Nelson Mandela and his story deserves the closest attention. An excellent recent biography by Professor Lodge suggests that Nelson Mandela was
‘Especially sensitive to the imperatives for acting out a messianic leadership role during his [time as a guerrilla commander] …deliberately constructing a mythological legitimacy.. to engender hopes that salvation would be achieved through heroic self-sacrifice.’

‘Look on my works, ye mighty and despair’

The idea of erecting a statue to Nelson Mandela in London has been around for over a decade. There was [in 2007] a highly suitable place in Trafalgar Square, which has four plinths for monumental pieces. Three are occupied with military and monarchic figures. The fourth would be particularly appropriate as it is close to the South Africa House, focus of so many ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ demos during his imprisonment on Robben Island.

The public was invited to suggest appropriate artifacts. One suggestion was for a work that would celebrate animals in wartime service. Nelson Mandela was among other front runners together with The Queen, Margaret Thatcher, Lady Diana, as well as long shots such as David Beckham, Winnie the Pooh, and a very large Pigeon, (capturing one of the more intrusive visiting groups that flock to Trafalgar Square).

The fund-raising ran ahead of the official decision, and the statute commissioned was considered too massive for the original location. Eventually the political pieces fell into place, and Nelson Mandela’s image was unveiled at Parliament Square, rather than close by to that other Nelson, atop his column in Trafalgar Square.

What the poet says

Look on my works, ye mighty and despair. Unlike the despotic leader Shelley wrote about, Mandela could be said to inspire us to look on his works and rejoice.

Timeline: July 18, 1918: Born into the Thembu royal family in Mvezo, southeastern South Africa. Died, Dec 5th, 2013

Tribute video

You can see a tribute video here

One Response to A Tribute to Nelson Mandela [1918- 2013]

  1. Liam says:


    Not sure we deserved him, the South Africans certainly did.

    South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation is surely one of the most extraordinary political achievements of modern times and stands in stark contrast to many current political endeavours.

    To pinch a thought from The Guardian, I can’t wait for all the old school politicians who condemned him, and us for agitating for change in the 70’s, to take their turns at the microphone to bask in his reflected glory.

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