The Best Writing About Nelson Mandela’s Life and Legacy


Legendary activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and former South African president Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday at the age of 95. As is expected whenever such a titanic figure leaves us, the obituaries, essays, and op-eds started flooding in almost immediately. Ranging from personal reflections to straightforward accounts of Mandela’s countless achievements, the best writing on Madiba and what he meant to the millions he affected is thought-provoking and profoundly moving. Here are the finest tributes to one of the 20th century’s most remarkable leaders, looking back on his lifetime and forward to his legacy.

William Finnegan: “Postscript: Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013”

The New Yorker‘s comprehensive account of Mandela’s life, from his first foray into political activism in 1941 through his eventual support of multiracial democracy, imprisonment, and tenure as South Africa’s president, is perhaps the most fact-dense of any tribute thus far. But the sheer scope of its focus, tracking both Mandela’s political evolution and his personal life, provides a definitive summary of a remarkable life. Posted within hours of the news of Madiba’s death, Finnegan’s obituary provides a necessary jumping-off point for discussions of the leader’s legacy.

Peter Beinart: “Don’t Sanitize Nelson Mandela”

Anticipating the wave of laudatory obituaries from both sides of the American political spectrum, Beinart warns Daily Beast readers not to forget that Mandela was far less beloved by politicians when the struggle against apartheid was still in full swing. Figures like Ronald Reagan and Dick Cheney supported a horrifyingly oppressive regime in the name of black-and-white anticommunism, Beinart reminds us, and to forget Mandela’s opposition would be to erase a key component of his legacy: “American power and human freedom are two very different things. Sometimes they intersect; sometimes they do not. Walking in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps requires being able to tell the difference.”

Nadine Gordimer: “Mandela My Countryman”

Also writing for the New Yorker, the novelist relates her personal relationship with Madiba, from their first meeting during his 1964 trial to their first meeting after his 1990 release to her journey to Oslo in 1993 to witness the awarding of Mandela and F.W. de Klerk’s shared Nobel Peace Prize. Gordimer provides a personal account of both Mandela’s life and the political struggle he waged, including the long, frustrating negotiations surrounding the formation of a post-apartheid state. Ultimately, Gordimer urges her audience to remember Mandela “not a figure carved in stone but a tall man, of flesh and blood, whose suffering had made him not vengeful but still more human.”

Richard Stengel: “Remembering an Icon of Freedom”

The onetime managing editor of TIME gives yet another personal account of Mandela, this time from the perspective of a collaborator on Long Walk to Freedom, the autobiography just adapted for the screen (and tactlessly promoted by Nikki Finke via Twitter). Stengel remembers Mandela as a man who shouldered profound personal loss while learning to suppress his anger and bitterness for the sake of the cause. Describing Madiba as a “natural conservative” driven into a lifetime of activism by an intolerance for injustice, Stengel recounts the remarkable skill set that allowed Mandela to lead a country: “he had to demonstrate rocklike strength to the Afrikaner leaders with whom he was negotiating but also show that he was not out for revenge. And he had to show his people that he was not compromising with the enemy. This was an incredibly delicate line to walk — and from the outside, he seemed to do it with grace.”

Zakes Mda: “The Contradictions of Mandela”

Mda’s New York Times op-ed merits inclusion for balancing reverence for Mandela with questions about the state of contemporary South Africa and what it means for evaluating the leader’s successes. Mda is joined by The Atlantic‘s Natasha Joseph in noting the country’s continuing inequality, skewed heavily in favor of whites. While never wavering in his regard for Mandela as “a skillful politician whose policy of reconciliation saved the country from a blood bath and ushered it into a period of democracy, human rights and tolerance,” Mda expresses concern for the “crony capitalism” that threatens to perpetuate the kind of injustice Madiba stood against. It’s a tribute that looks forward rather than backward, and an important call to continue Mandela’s work even after his death.