In an age in which historians have long since abandoned the ‘great men’ theory of history, how do we define – should we even use – the term ‘world historical figure’? Our discipline now rightly prefers to complicate our vision of the past, to emphasise the complex interaction of long- and short-term causes, of cultural, social and political factors, and see the course of history as beyond the control of any given individual. It’s important that we demonstrate this – it enables us to depict and discover the past in a way which opens it out and democratises our vision of a shared history.
But the death of a figure such as Nelson Mandela reminds us that one of the factors which must be considered when analysing events is precisely the role of the individual: we privilege the systemic at our peril. Mandela, born in 1918, defined, focused and energised the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Not just as the first black president of that country, he was one of the most significant political and cultural figures of the twentieth century. His decades of imprisonment, his long struggle against the injustice of white rule in South Africa, and his emphasis upon reconciliation elevated him to a status far beyond mere statesman. It was once illegal even to own an image of Mandela in South Africa, yet he helped change not just the history of his own country, and indeed not just of the world; he had profound and lasting impacts upon how people thought, how they reacted to and interacted with their world.
These kinds of shifts in mentality can be as historically important as the fall of an empire or the birth of a religion. They are often the consequence of difficult and bewildering confluences of forces. They are also often focused upon and by individuals at all levels of society. Nelson Mandela was one such figure, and whatever the details and consequences of his remarkable career – from Sharpeville to Robben Island to presidential office – his impact in this regard is impossible to deny.
World historical figures, great men and women, exist; Nelson Mandela was one of them.