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Yvette Christiansë Headshot

Mandela: The Man and the Icon

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Nelson Mandela. His name is everywhere today. As is his face, the face we came to know after he was released from twenty-seven years of imprisonment by the apartheid government. Many have even replaced their Facebook profile pics with images of him.

Today, many journalists speak of their own encounters with him, or they interview others who encountered him, or who were inspired by him. In each case, someone is saying they were in the proximity of a man who changed history.

Today Nelson Mandela is being described in all ways that he should be for what he led a country to achieve. And he is being named as all that he should be: icon, a man who inspired, who taught forgiveness by example, who was nevertheless a practical politician. And his family is being asked, once again, to share him with the world, a request he now is mercifully spared from answering as he did without flinching from the moment he stood in the dock of the Rivonia Trial in 1963, or when, in the face of systematic state violence in the name of racial supremacy, he declared limited armed struggle a last but necessary resort in 1961.

Over the next days, perhaps weeks, this praise will be tempered by addendums. Some have already begun to say he did not act quickly enough when it came to HIV/AIDS. Though this is a criticism that begs the question as to who did act 'quickly enough'? And there will be those who point to the slowness of an economic redress under his government. The disappointments will accumulate and the same need to locate in him the political, ethical, psychic compass of his country will turn and the gravity of that turn will attribute him with blame. It is, as it was, the cost of stepping forward and accepting the responsibility of being the necessary icon.

What matters today and what will always be true is that he accepted this responsibility of finding a way to lead over thirty-two-and-a-half million South Africans out of the crippled morality of apartheid in 1994. That way could not longer be the armed struggle he had said was the last resort into which apartheid was pushing its opposition. He accepted the responsibility of being radical. He bore our hopes. He had to absorb our needs. He had to show apartheid's own that they were more than they could bear to imagine.

His legacy has been named so many times and in such detail since we heard the news of his death. In this end of his life with us, that legacy is our new challenge. What we choose to remember as the best of this man is what he asked of us. He asked us to give up the likes of Hamlet's ghost and its expectations of vengeance. He asked us to turn our faces away to the better possibilities. They are still up to us.

South Africa still struggles today with vast inequalities of wealth. It is still in the grips of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which is compounded by desperately high rates of unemployment. And sexual violence has yet to be fully addressed. Now, more than ever, it is up to us to become the practical ones, to keep alive and real his aspirations and highest hopes. It is up to us to relieve him of the burdens of iconicity and keep his memory live in our actions.