The Genius of Nelson Mandela

Five great “Madiba” truths, for the fifth anniversary of his death.

Jeremy Helligar


Nelson Mandela in 2008 (Photo: Creative Commons/South Africa The Good News)

I remember exactly where I was in 2013 when I read the news that Nelson Mandela had died on December 5 at age 95. One month into the year I was based in Cape Town, I’d felt closer to the South African leader prior to his death than I ever had before, and not just because I was living in his country.

I stumbled upon the first obituary headline while I was sitting in front of my laptop about to consult Wikipedia for some random piece of pop-culture trivia that I’ve since forgotten. Although Mandela was close to a century old, I experienced that moment of shock many of us feel whenever any legend dies. I was so certain that he, if anyone, would live forever.

From my rental flat up in the hills of Tamboerskloof, a mostly white neighborhood in Cape Town’s City Bowl, I wondered what the mood would be like down below. Interestingly, despite the national grief, the South Africans I saw later on the streets were going about their business as usual, their faces betraying no national reaction to the breaking news about their icon, who also was known locally by his Xhosa clan name, Madiba.

I can’t speak for any of them, but I felt cheated. Gone was the remote possibility that someday, due to my physical proximity to Mandela’s greatness, I might find myself literally in the presence of it.

A month earlier, I’d come close when I spent four and a half hours at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. It featured a special exhibit on Mandela and a permanent one on the history of South Africa, which, sadly, is synonymous with the history of Apartheid there. Like many Americans, I knew Mandela’s name but little else about him.

The MLK Jr. connection

It wasn’t until that afternoon at the Apartheid Museum that I really began to know and understand the man beyond the myth. Nelson Mandela was South Africa’s Martin Luther King Jr. and an example of how much further the slain U.S. Civil Rights leader could have gone.

I’d always thought of King as the greatest political leader of the last century, but when the museum kept making a case for Mandela, I couldn’t argue. Unlike King with his non-violence…



Jeremy Helligar

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”