The passing of Nelson Mandela leaves a waning number of global figures representing freedom and resilience against oppression — and a changing world that makes it harder for anyone to approach Mandela’s iconic power.
There are a few whose trials have made them symbols of freedom, including the former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, the Dalai Lama and, more recently, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl turned women’s- rights activist.
But Mandela, the black revolutionary who emerged from 27 years in prison to embrace his white oppressors and lead a new South Africa, may be one of the last of a breed for all sorts of reasons — including the circumstances of his heroism, his extraordinary success and the onset of an age when heroes’ foibles are often exposed.
“He lived and worked in a context and historical period where his extraordinary individual qualities could help make change in his country and ripple throughout the world,” said Daniel Calengaret, executive vice president of the Freedom House, a watchdog group working to expand freedom around the world.
“It’s hard to think of someone who was both an iconic dissident figure and was actually central to building a new system,” Calengaret said.
Mandela is often mentioned in the same breath as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., who also changed nations through nonviolence.
Gandhi and King were killed before their dreams were realized.