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It's the small acts that truly reflect Nelson Mandela's legacy

By Gail Walker

One of the benefits of the internet is that news which, 20 years ago, would have been observed 'after the event', largely by written accounts, mostly by still photography, are now on our phones as they happen. It's saturation. But it is good, largely.

Recently, the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination saw the usual stock footage – accidentally-acquired on the '60s equivalent of iPhones – re-run endlessly. Remember Churchill's funeral with the cranes at London docks lowering in salute as the barge carrying the great man's body passed under?

But these are snapshots only and they had to be hunted down. Even Princess Diana's death and funeral, though the subject of global attention, couldn't acquire the actual instant coverage that the death of Nelson Mandela has been afforded by new technology.

Of course, it is Mandela's life rather than his death which fuels the attention – in this, his obsequies resemble those of Churchill, rather than JFK, or Diana.

His was the life of a Great Man. There are such things. Mandela reminds us that they exist. There are Great Women also, of course – Golda Meir and Indira Gandhi to name but two.

There are individuals whose lives, private and public, come together in such spectacular ways that they change not only nations, but what we expect of ourselves and what is suddenly regarded as 'possible'.

Forgive me for not rehearsing the qualities of Mandela's greatness in this short space. They are well-known and only rather chilling ideologies have failed to put them in the foreground this week.

But surely it would be a mistake not to acknowledge how complicated the character of greatness is? Mandela's personal negotiations between physical force, mandate, suffering, restoration, reconciliation, Justice and Truth – those big things – were and remain very valuable moments in this new century. How he managed to translate those into public and national political doctrine and strategy even more so.

His legacy will be pored over for decades. The methods of his political practice in uniting a nation have already been tested and tried elsewhere, not least among ourselves in Northern Ireland, with mixed results.

Mandela toiled with Zimbabwe as much as anyone else; he had no prescription for any other mess than the one in his own place which (with the Middle East and Iran) was forever in the top three of world flashpoints.

But that is not his fault or to say the principles are inadequate. It is just to say that the force of his personality, the integrity of his endurance in prison, the vast new meaning he gave to the word 'humanity' as a quality rather than a collective noun, were inseparable from his practical politics after release and the achievement of his vision insofar as he was able to effect that as his country's first black president.

Sanctifying Mandela, though, would be to miss the whole point. Forgetting the young, rightfully angry, lawyer and militant in favour exclusively of the grey-haired avuncular patron of the nation is missing the point, also.

But forgetting the older, wiser ex-prisoner would also be an error. Images of Mandela through his lifetime, from monochrome to colour, tell the story of a life almost exclusively given to the welfare of others, to an almost absurd degree of fidelity. That's not to downplay his involvement with violence, or its context in a state without democracy. It is simply to highlight the central virtue of this man's life.

He found a nation in a stand-off with its own populations. Somehow, he added to the old categories of the iron fist and endless resistance a whole set of strategies which his personality fashioned, for the first time really, into practical political options.

We all know good people. Some of us have even known great people in the small ways of the daily world, whose greatness Mandela would have recognised just as he would have understood their anonymity. It is in these small ways that the rest of us can aspire to attain greatness of humanity in Mandela's sense.

Look after your neighbour. Think about the civic good. Vote with your conscience. Vote. Accept your responsibility. Say your piece. Make sure the weak and vulnerable have access to power. Don't victimise or distress or harm those who have been hurt or who don't know any better.

All that applies to those in power – with guns, with numbers, with influence – as much as to those without those things. These are not platitudes. These are a programme for government.

Good night, Nelson Mandela, and thank you.

You've left us with all the problems we would rather have.

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