Tonawanda News

December 8, 2013

DUVALL: Remembering Mandela, the practical humanist

By Eric DuVall
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — There aren’t very many people in the world whose death brings a global moment of reflection and introspection. Nelson Mandela was one of those men.

When I heard the news come across the radio driving in my car Thursday I was surprised to find myself a little choked up. I don’t have a personal connection to South Africa or Apartheid. I only know of Mandela what everyone knows — his years in prison on Robin Island, his steely determination to end his country’s practice of subjugating blacks to minority white rule, the Nobel Peace Prize and later his status as an ambassador and statesman for the entire African continent. 

In the days since his death I’ve found myself fascinated by this man’s life and captivated by a story that only in death is being more extensively flushed out.

I had no idea Mandela was born into South African tribal royalty. His father was a tribal chief before the British stripped his title. When Mandela’s father died at an early age, the man who would come to be known by his Western name, Nelson, was sent to live with another tribal leader. 

It doesn’t fit the simplistic narrative of a child born penniless — though he was hardly rich — overcoming poverty to rise to leader of a people. In many ways, Mandela’s stubbornness, friends say, was born of his firmly held belief he was better than his oppressors. 

He wasn’t the stuff of Ghandi or Martin Luther King, though he was every bit as effective. Mandela opposed violence out of pragmatism more than moralism. He was a humanist of the first order who understood a violent uprising would only lead to greater bloodshed, even if it succeeded in overthrowing the Apartheid government.

He is viewed in the eyes of history as a civil rights icon but he doesn’t get enough credit as a shrewd politician.

While it took unimaginable grace to forgive and at many points partner with elements of the regime he fought to upend, it was his work mediating the deep rifts among South Africa’s black factions that required real political skill. It’s easy to forget 20 years later, the popular prediction at the time was once Mandela succeeded — and even then it seemed as though he would persevere — there was little faith he could establish a legitimate political apparatus capable of guiding the country to democracy.

Many people thought South Africa would devolve into some form of civil war. Mandela avoided that, in part simply because his very presence wouldn’t allow it. It was also in part due to his inclusive style of governing described by one former friend and adviser as a shepherd directing his flock.

It’s an elegant metaphor for an elegant man. Real leaders accomplish things not by forcing reticent factions to get in line but by pointing them toward a common goal. Real unity cannot be forced, it must be forged and Mandela knew this. He used it to incredible effect. 

In reflecting on what to say in this column I found myself at first trying to compare Mandela to other great leaders. In researching it, the comparisons fell flat. 

Picture, for a moment, the faces of recent and famous American presidents. Obama. Bush. Clinton. Reagan. Kennedy. FDR. Lincoln. Picture Dr. King, Ghandi or Mother Theresa. 

Now picture Nelson Mandela’s face. 

There is the shock of gray hair, his stubborn eyes sunken with age but still as piercing as the tip of a knife. And yet there is something different about Mandela’s face than the others in my mind. His wears a smile.

This, more than anything, tells me why he was able to change the world.

Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.