Mandela, Mythical Men and Women: The Great Statesman

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Today it seems natural to address The Great Statesman, in honoring the death of Nelson Mandela. Naturally, one must use a more general term, such as Statesperson or the feminine form Stateswoman, but as of now, the majority of great leaders sadly still have been men. The Great Statesman is not always the political leader of the country, but s/he holds great iconic significance to his or her people. Very often, this figure has united his or her people to face the opposition, which is sometimes internal as well as external in a country. For example, Mandela united South Africans against an internal enemy: the system of apartheid instituted by white supremacists. Mahatma Gandhi, spiritually the founder of modern India, had his enemy outside: the British. And it was the wife of a politician in Argentina who reached mythic heights with her popularity, a woman named Eva Perón, in a country that has struggled with various factions—-labor, military, leftist, right wing—-trying to claim power.

The Great Statesman is always a most charismatic figure, inspiring legions of followers and remaining in the collective consciousness of his or her citizens for generations or even centuries. But very often, this individual has come from extremely humble backgrounds or has embraced a wide variety of professions. The “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher was the daughter of a grocer. Vaclav Havel worked for a time in a brewery, despite his bourgeois family origins. Anwar Sadat was one of 13 children born to a poor family. And most all of them have faced severe obstacles in their lives, such as imprisonment for decades (think Mandela), that have made their heroic status even stronger.

Sometimes the legacy is not necessarily so much about politics as it is about culture. Catherine the great is considered a symbol of the Age of Enlightenment in Russia and one of her predecessors, Peter the Great, both expanded Russia’s power and “Europeanized” his country, adopting a number of practices found in Western Europe. Just look at Mandela’s influence on popular culture outside of his country: both Bono and Peter Gabriel have been largely influenced by him, spreading political awareness in their music, and the 1980’s groundbreaking American sitcom The Cosby Show featured Cliff Huxtable’s grandchildren named Winnie and Nelson. Cities, streets, children, and organizations are named in honor of these great individuals, and sometimes even the oddest items, such as sunglasses from Thailand of the brand Evita Peroni! Thus, it is important to remember that it is not enough for The Great Statesman to have been politically savvy, recognized by his or her fellow world leaders, Nobel prize committees, politicians, etcetera. The Great Statesman must have had a special quality that appealed to the simplest and humblest of people. S/he must have had an ability to connect with peoples’ hearts and feelings, to be that father figure, mother figure, saint, friend, teacher in a way that garners tremendous respect and love. Sadly, it is that very quality that allows the most crooked and cunning of politicians to manipulate the masses for their own benefit, the quality that often allows terrorists and despots to rise to power. If I feed you rice, if I provide for your daily needs with a smile on my face, I know you’ll vote for me. It is something that happens every day, all over the world.

But Mandela, or Madiba, as he was known by his clan name, touched not only the poorest of the poor and blackest of the Black and South Africa, but millions if not billions of people all over the world. He has rightly received extensive news coverage upon his death, and received the honor of the presence of numerous world leaders at his funeral services. It will be interesting to see his legacy in the future, and how it continues to impact politics and culture for centuries. We on earth were lucky to have had him for almost a century, as he died at the age of 95.