Like Che Guevara and all the other famous historical figures who led national liberation movements, Nelson Mandela, known by his clan name Madiba, is only dead in the physical sense. An ocean of remembrances and biographies is churning out, as people all over the world pay their respects not only for him but for all that he represented in the symbolic sense, which is never extinguishable.
Many, wisely, caution against hero worship and enforcing the historiographical concept of the Great Men who make big changes. Yet it is difficult to evade this completely: for the first time, an entire system that socially and politically privileged a minority of people to rule over the majority was overturned as the unjust and oppressive system it was.
Apartheid in South Africa was so entrenched that it took violent measures to help end it, along with an entire generation of students and activists in many countries, and crucially in the United States, which allied with the Afrikaners until Washington could not longer tolerate what apartheid had done and what it stood for and called off what Reagan once termed “strategic engagement” with a racist government.
Perhaps that is an oversimplification, but this account is the mass market version that most people seem to know. In any case, there is no shortage of words, justifiably effusive and emotive, that seek to honor the legacy of a man that our own State Department did not remove from its list of terrorists as late as 2008, to our shame. That decision reflected the history of official, diplomatic support given, over the objections of many American anti-apartheid groups and leaders, to Johannesburg. No one disputes that there remains economic apartheid, and not only in South Africa.
It is seen as axiomatic that a freedom fighter to someone is a terrorist to someone else. Mandela was more than a militant, because he understood that bombing government buildings, for example, is just a means to an end, not the goal itself. Politics aside, his example will always be an inspiration. One man can die, but his ideals cannot. That task is left to the living.