A portrait of Nelson MandelaNew York Times
A portrait of Nelson Mandela

The death of Mandela is not to be regretted and mourned, but to be consecrated and celebrated.

There is another proverb from my home of Nso, which says: “god’s life is in god’s deeds” and should “god’s deeds die then god will.”

The Mandela exit is alive and well and so it is proper to talk about “life in death” when talking about Mandela. The death of Mandela is a transformation of his deeds into a civic virtue of the highest order for those with ears to hear and those with such ears are gathered in South Africa in celebration of his person embodied in his deed.

They are celebrating not merely the life lived but the living life of Mandela.

It is inevitable that Mandela will, like Washington or Lincoln, come to be thought of by most as a mythic figure, a sort of lifeless, two-dimensional symbol of certain civic virtues and ideals.

And historians and biographers will correctly remind us of the complexities of Mandela the man and all the various ways in which the Mandela myth obscures the facts of his life and times.

But what is so remarkable about Mandela is that the facts and complexities enrich, rather than debunk, the idealized image.  Mandela’s virtues as a leader were exhibited in his deeds, which underscore the importance of leaders attending to the needs and desires of their followers.

Rather than force his people to fit the world concocted in his mind as his contemporaries all over Africa do, his leadership had a supple vitality that accommodated the circumstances and needs of South Africans, white and black. And while he knew how to use power, he recognized that the power he wielded was merely given to him in trust by the rightful owners of that power, the people.

Mandela proved wrong those who saw politics as a curse, one that consistently stymied the talents, energies, ambitions, and the best hope of Africans.  He showed African youth that freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same thing brought to life through politics. His life was an example of how democratic citizens of Africa can, like skillful sailors use their knowledge of uncontrollable winds, torrents and currents to navigate and realize their dreams of freedom in a continent that seems too often gripped by forces outside anyone’s control.

Mandela’s life, be it in prison, in the highest office of his country, or in death, is a demonstration of this proposition and a gift to African youth and youth the world over who are aspiring for something better.

And his gift? Democracy thrives when citizens are willing to fully devote themselves to responsibility by holding themselves and their leaders accountable and with the readiness to sacrifice the last devotion to life to ensure that accountability.

Mandela taught that death in life is worse than death itself.  In his words: “… if needs be, it [freedom] is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”  No leader, democratic or otherwise can be counted upon to be responsive to their citizens of their own accord nor should leaders be allowed to be accountable to their citizens out of their own grace.

Not grace but right is the imperative of democratic politics. This is the precise paideia embodied in the political life of Mandela. Like Plato and the likes of Washington, Jesus, Moses, and Mohammed, Mandela is a human achievement out of Africa—the new thing that Aristotle was referring to when he said some 2500 years ago, that there is always something new coming out of Africa—and that is why I join the rest of the world in celebrating the life of Mandela, an illustrious citizen of Africa and a maker of surprises.

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