Will the World See Another Mandela?

The South African's distinctive model of transformative leadership 

Nelson Mandela gives an animated speach to the crowds at Trafalgar Square during the South African democracy concert in 2001. (Jonathan Evans/Reuters)

The great ones, it often seems, hand off the mantle of greatness to each other. Nelson Mandela, in his 1994 autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, described how Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in 1941 helped change his life and those of his fellow black students in the infant African National Congress with the Atlantic Charter, which committed the West to human dignity and universal rights, setting the stage for the entire postwar world. "Some in the West saw the charter as empty promises," Mandela wrote, "but not those of us in Africa. Inspired by the Atlantic Charter and the fight of the Allies against tyranny and oppression, the ANC created its own charter." Called "African Claims," it set out the aspirations that would make Mandela a revered world figure a half-century later.

Then a young Barack Obama sought to take the mantle from Mandela. In his own autobiography, Dreams from My Father—in a story he again repeated on his visit to Africa last June—Obama described how the anti-apartheid movement that Mandela led effectively began his own rise to charismatic leadership. As a freshman at Occidental College in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Obama made his first attempt at public speaking at a divestment-from-South Africa rally (where "Free Mandela!" was often a rallying cry). He wrote that few of the Frisbee-playing students were listening when he began in a low voice, saying, "There's a struggle going on." Then he raised his deep baritone, and suddenly, for the first time, the Obama Effect made itself known. "The Frisbee players stopped…. The crowd was quiet now, watching me. Somebody started to clap. 'Go on with it, Barack,' somebody shouted … I knew I had them, that the connection had been made." Thus, inspired by Mandela's struggle, was launched a voice that would ignite a meteoric political rise and, once upon a time, inspire huge crowds in places like Berlin and Cairo.

With the announcement of Mandela's death Thursday at age 95, who will the mantle go to now? In his remarks, the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, called Mandela South Africa's "greatest son." But Mandela was far, far more than that, as Obama indicated when he flew to South Africa last June, just after Mandela fell mortally ill, and pre-eulogized his personal hero as a "hero for the world." Is there anyone else left on the planet who could be described that way? Who's the next Mandela? Is one even possible?

Certainly Obama himself doesn't qualify (yet). Indeed, it doesn't seem far-fetched to call Mandela the last of the great ones, the truly inspirational historical leaders on the scale of a Gandhi or Churchill or FDR who lived noble (if not entirely untainted, though Mandela comes close) lives and, more importantly, who genuinely changed the world for the better. Look around the world, and you see no one else of that stature. Even the once-sainted Aung San Suu Kyi, Asia's answer to Mandela who suffered as a house prisoner of the Burmese junta for 20 years while her husband died and her children grew up without her, has looked somewhat compromised since she was freed and began her tentative dance with the dictators. Recently Suu Kyi has temporized, in a most un-Mandela-like way, over the Burmese military's brutal oppression of the Kachin and Rohingya communities in Burma, and that "has tarnished her image abroad while raising concerns about the future of Burma's tentative political reform," Ellen Bork wrote in an article titled "Burma's Fallen Idol" in Foreign Policy.

As for the other major leaders on the scene, from the United Kingdom to Europe to China to Russia to most of the rest of Africa, there is precious little to admire, and plenty to lament.

Why is that? Don't we still have great causes, or has the entire globalized system grown too gray and compromised? Perhaps somehow, starting with places like South Africa, just enough justice and freedom has been achieved in the last few decades to make everyone just a little too satisfied and a little too willing to hedge and fudge. The anti-apartheid movement of the '80s was in some ways the last really coherent global social justice campaign. We've seen two successive social movements erupt in the last two decades over the still-devastating inequalities in the global economy—the anti-globalization protests of the '90s and then Occupy Wall Street– and yet no inspirational figure has emerged from them and both movements petered out with a whimper (though old Ralph Nader's still around, making some fairly valid points about the excesses of free-trade agreements). Time magazine's annual list of the world's "100 Most Influential People" is continually deflating, stocked with pop artists, tycoons, marginal politicians, and … Sheryl Sandberg.

It's not like we haven't seen some new mini-heroes spring up, and Aung San Suu Kyi's story is far from finished, just as Obama's isn't. Aaron Swartz, the Internet activist who tragically killed himself when faced with prosecution last year, has inspired a movement around a bill that would rein in prosecutors. Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old education activist who was shot in the head by the Taliban, would seem to have a great future—if she survives future assaults. National Security Agency leader Edward Snowden has found a following among a few libertarians and far-leftists, but few others. If the global economy has had any heroes over the last few years, it's probably central bankers like Ben Bernanke and Mario Draghi—but, never mind about that. No cause, and no leader, has inspired anything like the devotion and reverence that Mandela did.

Is it that Mandela was truly unique? In his autobiography, Mandela wrote that he was "no more virtuous or self-sacrificing than the next man" and never wanted the mantle of movement leader, but it was the struggle for basic freedom "that transformed a frightened young man into a bold one, that drove a law-abiding attorney to become a criminal, that turned a family-loving husband in to a man without a home, that forced a life-loving man to live like a monk." As usual Mandela is being too humble. It wasn't just the way he conducted his struggle against the racist white regime in South Africa, in and out of prison (refusing, in case we've forgotten, any conditions at all for his release, including renouncing violence). It was also the way, after he was released from 26 years of imprisonment and became president, Mandela transmuted his personal suffering into a larger understanding, as only the great ones can do, and an embrace of his former enemies that was about as close as you get to Christ-like in the modern world.

"He's a personal hero, but I don't think I'm unique in that regard," Obama said in Dakar last June. "I think he's a hero for the world. And if and when he passes from this place, one thing I think we'll all know is that his legacy is one that will linger on throughout the ages."

Especially because there is no one to replace him.