T he name Mandela is enough. It symbolises strength, equality, greatness, justice. For millions around the world, Nelson Mandela is an icon of hope that a better, more just world can be realised. But Nelson Mandela is also a human being with all the associated faults and fragilities, none more emphatic than his own mortality. Soon, perhaps very soon, Mandela will die, leaving South Africa and the world with a legacy that can only be done justice if it inspires others to carry on in the same way.
At nearly 95, Mandela's job is done and he can do no more. Nor should we expect more from him. Most of all he cannot and should not be expected to live just for the people. Innumerable well wishers and messages of encouragement have voiced the hope that he will get better soon and carry on, but for how long, and for whom? Some say the glue that binds South Africa is Mandela himself and without him the social cohesion between black and white will fracture. Such is the respect and awe they have for him that may be true, but if so it would simply mean his people have not learned from his example. Rather they have united for his sake and not theres in the way Hindus and Muslims layed down arms for Gandhi to end his hunger strike.
Mandela is not and must never be a figure of worship. Hero worship abbrogates personal responsibility by living through and for someone else. The great man's importance for posterity is the example of his leadership, not his physical presence. When his long-time friend Andrew Mlangeni said they should 'let him go' he was not just speaking to Mandela's family but to all the people. He doesn't need prayers, he needs his fellow South Africans to stand on their own two feet and fulfill the dream of unity. That test of true respect has come, and can only be demonstrated without Nelson Mandela.