Mandela's statue masks another divide

2 September 2007

Jon Bright (London, OK): Lots of column inches have been devoted to the unveiling of Nelson Mandela's statue, unsurprisingly, and a lot of them pick up on the relationship with the 10 year anniversary of Princess Diana's death. Mandela joins Jan Christiaan Smuts as the second South African politician to have a likeness of himself adorning parliament square - Smuts the man who established the League of Nations and unsuccesfully opposed the imposition of de jure apartheid.

One of the more interesting pieces was David Cox's viewpoint in Comment is Free. Cox argues that Mandela's contribution to the end of apartheid was less than others, and that his periods of both leading a terrorist organisation/resistance movement (delete as you feel applicable) and, eventually, his country, were riddled with failure. Cox points out that the public seem to need "secular saints" - he just isn't sure Mandela should be one of them. Well, leaving aside the fact that being erected in Parliament square doesn't necessarily guarantee long lasting status in the public imagination (Smuts a good case in point), does Cox have a point?

Not really. Like a lot of historical figures, Mandela has come to represent far more than his own achievements - he represents a final and complete discrediting of the idea of legal classification of races. This alone is worth celebrating. What he might have mentioned is that Mandela represents ninth man to be added to be Parliament Square - out of a total of nine statues.

Like the rest, Mandela is there for his achievements (which Cox thinks aren't good enough). Diana, meanwhile, is celebrated for her personality - her warm heart, and generous nature. Mandela's statue marks the end of one type of divide but the continuation of another, more implicit one, in the way men and women are celebrated in modern Britain.

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