Nelson Mandela “belongs to the ages”

It is no coincidence that the White House chose to use the most famous epitaph in American history, first uttered after the tragic assassination of President Abraham Lincoln on a cold night in 1865, to describe the legacy of Nelson Mandela. As Fathers of their respective modern nations, it is an apt comparison. Abraham Lincoln kept the United States together through the Civil War, fighting to preserve the Union and abolish ‘America’s Original Sin’ of slavery. Nelson Mandela spent his life in protest at the injustice of South African apartheid, before leading his country away from the civil war that seemed almost inevitable. Both men – one black, the other white ? became champions of black emancipation in deeply divided countries. Lincoln and Mandela were of course political men, and despite coming from different backgrounds both had their characters forged through personal loss and hardship. Yet what marked Lincoln and Mandela out as true political giants was each man’s ability to harness their extraordinary personal qualities ? empathy, forgiveness, and integrity – as political resources to change the course of history dramatically for the better. Mandela, having spent a staggering 27 years in prison, set out to end apartheid through persuasion and reconciliation, not retaliation ? to the surprise of even his wife, Winnie, who was ready to fight fire with fire. 125 years earlier, Lincoln had realised that a similar message of “malice toward none and charity for all” was needed to heal the scars of nation ripped apart by bloody civil war. Thus the greatness of these two individuals lies not just in their tremendous achievements, but through the moral authority and strength of character that their actions required. It was Edwin Stanton, formerly one of Lincoln’s most bitter professional rivals, who had said Lincoln “belonged to the ages” as he stood sobbing beside Lincoln’s body. In embracing ‘white’ South Africa’s game by supporting the Springboks at the 1995 Rugby World Cup, Mandela extended a hand of friendship across the political divide in a way that no-one could have ever thought possible. Just as Lincoln’s legacy continues to be passed down through the ages, so Mandela will inspire generations to come. Photo: Tributes laid at the statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square opposite the House of Commons, courtesy Chrysoulla Kyprianou.