PARIS: Will we see his like again? Probably not seems to be the verdict of historians and human rights campaigners as they look back on the extraordinary life of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.
As the world prepares to bid the father of democratic South Africa a final goodbye on Sunday, there is no shortage of dissidents, resistance movements and even some governments seeking to harness the legacy of the 20th century’s most famous prisoner of conscience.
Inevitably, some of the comparisons jar. Mandela was a hard act to follow. You can have the principles and the courage, but conjuring up charisma and charm on the Madiba scale is a different matter.
How do you match up to a man who, apart from the small matter of never compromising his fundamental principles, was equally at ease flirting with supermodels, joshing with Afrikaner prop forwards and chewing the fat with childhood friends from the Eastern Cape?
That, according to Christopher Hughes of the London School of Economics, is exactly the problem faced by Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese dissident who arguably is the closest thing to a contemporary Mandela.
“There are parallels. He is in prison and a prisoner of conscience,” Hughes told AFP. “But Mandela was obviously representing the black majority in South Africa whereas with Liu it is harder to claim that he is representing a majority. We don’t know if that is true.
“His critics can claim that he is an intellectual and not connected with the real lives of people.”
The Palestinians would like the world to regard Marwan Barghouti, who has spent 11 years in an Israeli jail, as their Mandela.
“From within my prison cell, I tell you our freedom seems possible because you reached yours,” Barghouti wrote this month in what was a reference to Mandela’s own celebrated statement that South Africa’s freedom would not be complete until the Palestinians had also achieved theirs.
But, for now at least, most of the world has resisted the conclusion that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians can be placed in the same category as the treatment of the black majority under apartheid.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s long years in captivity in Myanmar, formerly Burma, earned her comparisons to Mandela. A Nobel Peace Prize winner, like him, her sacrifices included staying in her homeland while her husband, who had raised their children alone in England, died of cancer. Had she left to care for him, the military junta would never have let her return.
Though heartbroken at their separation, she has repeatedly said that her first duty lay with the Burmese people.
But while Mandela, post prison, became a hero across the ethnic divides of his Rainbow Nation, Suu Kyi now stands accused of playing racial politics as she bids to win power under a quasi-civilian government. She has failed, critics say, to speak out in support of the Rohingya Muslim community as they have come under bloody attack by mobs drawn from Myanmar’s Burman majority.