Toby Melville/REUTERS
People view and place tributes at a statue of former South African President Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square in London December 6, 2013.

Nelson Mandela's legacy: The world remembers

From Chinese dissidents to Iranian clerics, South American leaders to the British monarchy, the world united today in mourning one of history's most revered statesmen.

Reporting contributed by Christa Case Bryant in Jerusalem, Scott Peterson in Tehran, Iran, Peter Ford in Beijing, and Jonathan Gilbert in Buenos Aires.

In July 1996, two years after Nelson Mandela became president of a newly democratic South Africa, he accomplished another remarkable feat: he made the Queen of England dance.

The venue was a charity concert in London, and the occasion Mr. Mandela’s first official visit to the UK as a head of state. As Phil Collins crooned from the stage at Royal Albert Hall, the South African president began to sway and clap, and soon Elizabeth and her son Charles joined in.

As the bewildered British press noted the next day, the Queen had “seldom been known to boogie in public,” but then again, that was the Mandela effect.

Few world leaders can claim among their devotees a cast as diverse as the English monarch, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and Chinese human rights activists. In Beijing and Tel Aviv, Lagos and Havana, London and Washington, DC, many around the world awoke Friday morning with their leaders momentarily united by the loss of one of the 20th century’s most revered statesmen. 
"This is as much India's loss as South Africa's,” said Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “He was a true Gandhian.”

In Africa, where Mandela’s ascension to power marked the epilogue to the continental experience of colonialism, that identification was especially acute. His death creates “a huge vacuum that will be difficult to fill in our continent," said Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in a letter to South African President Jacob Zuma.

“Here was the man who had created a new moral compass for South Africa and, as a matter of course, the entire continent,” wrote Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama in a New York Times op-ed today:

It is no coincidence that in the years since Mandela’s release so much of Africa has turned toward democracy and the rule of law….

Countries, like people, must acknowledge the trauma they have experienced, and they must find a way to reconcile, to make what was broken whole again.

President Barack Obama said at the White House Thursday night, just after the public announcement of Mandela's death, "He achieved more than could be expected of any man. Today, he has gone home. And we have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth."

From 'terrorist' to hero

Although many across the globe now see themselves reflected in Mandela’s legacy, it wasn’t long ago that he was a reviled figure in much of the world. In 1987, less than a decade before he danced with the Queen to Phil Collins, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called Mandela’s African National Congress “a typical terrorist organization” and declared that “anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”

The United States did not officially remove Mandela from its terrorist watch list until 2008.

Perhaps no country has had a more complicated relationship with the Mandela legacy than Israel. A longtime ally of Pretoria, by the 1980s it was one of the last countries in the world to continue its open support of the apartheid regime.

In death, however, Mandela has been held up on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian divide as a kind of model for what is possible in a deeply divided nation.

“He was the father of his country, a man of vision and a freedom fighter who disavowed violence,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “He worked to heal rifts within South African society and succeeded in preventing outbreaks of racial hatred. He will be remembered as … a moral leader of the highest order."

Palestinians, for their part, champion Mandela as a “symbol of liberation from colonialism and occupation,” in the words of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “He is the bravest and most important man to support us.”

Mandela’s currency as a global exemplar of resistance against inequality and imperialism also traveled to Iran, where President Hassan Rouhani called the leader “a source of inspiration and courage for all people."

“We value freedom-seeking people, and we try to follow their path,” Iran’s arch conservative Friday prayer leader Ahmad Khatami told a crowd of thousands gathered at Tehran University today. Mandela was “going against oppression…this is his way.”

'Still in jail'

Further east, the news of the South African’s death landed more softly. In China, Mandela has never been accorded the saintly status he enjoys in the West, although most Chinese are familiar with his life story. He is perhaps best known in the country from a Canto-pop hit song honoring his struggle, “Glorious Years,” released in 1991 by a Hong Kong band, “Beyond.”

Still, President Xi Jinping expressed “deep grief” over the death of the leader, who had long claimed inspiration from Mao Zedong and other Chinese revolutionary leaders. In a message to South African President Zuma, Mr. Xi said China “will always remember [Mandela’s] extraordinary contribution to…the cause of human progress.”

But while Chinese officials praised Mandela for building ties with Beijing, some ordinary citizens suggested that he would not have fared well had he been Chinese.

“China also has a great man like him,” wrote one blogger on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform, in an apparent reference to fellow Nobel Peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo, a dissident. “But he is still in jail at the moment.”

In Latin America, Mandela’s legacy was heralded from the Caribbean to the Southern Cone.

The front-page photo in Argentina’s Página|12 newspaper showed Mandela with his fist in the air beneath a headline “For Liberty.” Mandela has been a “model and a guide” for South American countries, wrote author and playwright Ariel Dorfman, who fled Chile after the military coup in 1973. 

Nations like Argentina and Chile looked to Mandela for inspiration, “facing the turbulent dilemma of a transition to democracy … without becoming hostages to hate,” Mr. Dorfman wrote.

Argentina celebrates 30 years of democracy this month, and the foreign ministry said that its “fight for democracy and human rights,” would continue to draw inspiration from Mandela’s legacy.

In Brazil – a racially diverse country where more than half the population identifies as black or mixed, according to the 2010 census – a column in O Globo by former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso read, “For us Brazilians, his actions represented … the fight to free humans from the chains of racism and revenge.”

In Cuba, which supported the African National Congress in the 1970s by training activists in Angola, leader Raúl Castro said, “We profess deep respect and admiration for Mandela, not only for what he did for his people, but also for his true friendship towards our country.”

A sanitized legacy?

Indeed, the fact that Mandela’s legacy can be claimed by groups as divergent as Chinese dissidents, Iranian hardliners, and western heads of states speaks to the way his life story has been sanitized and universalized by the global community, South African political historian Colin Bundy says.

Mandela is “not just a global figure but a kind of global cult,” Mr. Bundy says. Understanding him this way “strips the grief of any complexity and hollows out this man and his legacy,” he warns.

“You’d need almost to write two biographies of Mandela, the history, the life of the icon,” Bundy says. “And then for me there’s another life, a more important — the life of a complex dominant political leader who, like any other, had strengths and weaknesses, made some mistakes, and got other things right."

“There’s no legacy that’s universally available," he says. 

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