My column in The Kerryman. 18 December, 2013
When the best of us leave, as Nelson Mandela has left us, there is a need to remember the greatness that had once been among us. A need to describe both the grief and awe and to take a snapshot of an entire species, reduced. For that is the reality we now endure; he who was the best of us, is no more. We are a smaller people. We are a lesser people.
Mandela was not superhuman, he was not a superhero, neither was he a saint nor a god. He was one of us, so to describe him is to describe us at our greatest. But what is greatness?
I do not trust those who would be leaders, nor do I trust those who would be led. When we elevate one to rule us, we’re saying we are unable to govern ourselves. We’re saying we are children, we are sheep, we are slaves. But there are exceptions. In a time of terrible crisis, an individual may rise. In times of terrible crisis, we may need a single unifying figure, with the intellect, charisma and overwhelming ability to lead. Apartheid was such a crisis.
In ancient Rome when the City was threatened, they’d elect a dictator. He’d hold supreme power until the crisis was ended. The Romans hated a tyrant, but a crisis was a crisis. One of the greatest of these dictators was a man named Cincinnatus. The Romans faced defeat and so granted supreme power to Cincinnatus to stave off this ruin. He mobilised an army and saved the city. He then immediately resigned the dictatorship.
The city of Cincinnati in America was named after this man. They named it Cincinnati in honour of George Washington. He had accepted the leadership of the American colonies in their desperate battle for independence. He could have been a King, but instead he served his term as President and then handed power to his successor.
Imagine the temptation a great person must feel to cling with whitened knuckles and terrible deeds to power gained. Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mao Zedong, mighty empire builders but unwilling and unable to relinquish power until assassinated, utterly defeated or brought low by ill-heath.
One of the heroes in the defeat of white power in Africa, was Robert Mugabe. No lesser figure than Nelson Mandela, but Mugabe has never seen beyond the thrill of power. He has led Zimbabwe into an abyss to ensure his continued vicious rule. Nelson Mandela would have been an anointed dictator, his undemocratic rule applauded. Instead he chose to serve his term as the democratically elected President of South Africa and then stepped down. He simply refused to take personal advantage of the power he had, nor the devotion and loyalty he inspired.
In Ireland we know how seductive that cult of personality can be. Over the decades we’ve elevated any number of gombeen men, corrupt little people, to the status of demigods, so that we may fawn over them like slack jawed peasants.
I do not trust those who would be leaders, nor do I trust those who would be led, but with the death of Nelson Mandela the best of us that has ever been, ceased to be. We are less. We are less. We are less.