Legendary activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and former South African president Nelson Mandela passed away yesterday at the age of 95. As is expected whenever such a titanic figure leaves us, the obituaries, essays, and op-eds started flooding in almost immediately. Ranging from personal reflections to straightforward accounts of Mandela’s countless achievements, the best writing on Madiba and what he meant to the millions he affected is thought-provoking and profoundly moving. Here are the finest tributes to one of the 20th century’s most remarkable leaders, looking back on his lifetime and forward to his legacy.
William Finnegan: “Postscript: Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013″
The New Yorker‘s comprehensive account of Mandela’s life, from his first foray into political activism in 1941 through his eventual support of multiracial democracy, imprisonment, and tenure as South Africa’s president, is perhaps the most fact-dense of any tribute thus far. But the sheer scope of its focus, tracking both Mandela’s political evolution and his personal life, provides a definitive summary of a remarkable life. Posted within hours of the news of Madiba’s death, Finnegan’s obituary provides a necessary jumping-off point for discussions of the leader’s legacy.
Peter Beinart: “Don’t Sanitize Nelson Mandela”
Anticipating the wave of laudatory obituaries from both sides of the American political spectrum, Beinart warns Daily Beast readers not to forget that Mandela was far less beloved by politicians when the struggle against apartheid was still in full swing. Figures like Ronald Reagan and Dick Cheney supported a horrifyingly oppressive regime in the name of black-and-white anticommunism, Beinart reminds us, and to forget Mandela’s opposition would be to erase a key component of his legacy: “American power and human freedom are two very different things. Sometimes they intersect; sometimes they do not. Walking in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps requires being able to tell the difference.”