Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tributes to Nelson Mandela

Michael Cook

The death of Nelson Mandela this week at the age of 95 is a reminder for me, at least, of how powerful human dignity can be in history. The notion of "human dignity" (usually in scare quotes) has been dismissed by a number of bioethicists as " flawed, fuzzy and unhelpful" or as just plain "stupid". Of course dignity is a bit fuzzy; most concepts that do a lot of heavy lifting are. But it is no more fuzzy than the alternative ethical criterion on offer, autonomy.

Mandela was the embodiment of dignity, in all its senses. He was a man who commanded respect and admiration, even veneration, because of the way he comported himself and dealt with others. But he also believed that every human being was worthy of respect because they possessed an inalienable dignity. As he wrote in The Long Walk to Freedom, "Any man that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose". Mandela was a pragmatic politician, but these were more than fine words. His strategy of nation-building through truth and reconciliation demonstrated his consistency. As a slogan, dignity was more powerful than even prosperity or nationalism.

Does this have any relevance for bioethics? Indirectly, yes. Apartheid, the system which Mandela fought and dismantled, led to terrible inequities in health care and created conditions which helped to make South Africa the AIDS capital of the world. All because respect for human dignity had been lost - or rather because the ruling National Party had redefined who is human.

The dreadful, deadening, dreary ideology of apartheid was (almost literally) gospel truth for South Africa's politicians. It was undemocratic, violent, and unjust to the blacks and coloureds, but it was supported by the whites. It was even defended as doctrine of Christianity by the Dutch Reformed Church, in defiance of all other denominations. Apartheid's defenders included intelligent, well-educated, even well-meaning people. But these qualities did not keep them from colluding in what is now regarded as a paradigmatic case of an unjust government.

Human dignity is powerful in the hands of heroes like Mandela, but fragile, oh so fragile, in the hands of ethical pygmies.


Carolyn Monyihan

Nelson Mandela has died - may he rest in peace - and the world is paying its last respects and tributes. I have written a few thoughts but have spent much longer today reading about a man, a good and great man, whom I have seen more of than read about before.

Mandela's face is part of the political imagery of the 20th century - and what a wonderful face it is. I have commented on his smile, and you only have to Google up a page of images to see how consistently he wore it, and how naturally his face seemed to crease into those good-humoured, relaxed lines. All leaders try to smile, but not all succeed in convincing us that all's right with the world. What a blessing Madiba's personality and his forgiving character have been for South Africa, and for the world.

One thing I didn't mention in my article but has often occurred to me in recent times is the amazing fact of Mandela's longevity. The hardships of his 27 years in prison, part of it at least spent in hard manual work, did not shorten his life. It is tempting to use the cliché, What doesn't kill you... , and it does seem to be true of Mandela that suffering made him stronger. Today's wisdom is that suffering must be avoided at all costs, and somehow it seems to be making us weaker.


Mandela's death has sparked an outpouring of memorials and celebrations of the former prisoner turned president who led his country out of apartheid rule.

President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama plan to pay their respects. They will be joined on Air Force One by former President George W. Bush and wife Laura Bush. It is possible that they will be joined by the Clintons.

Mandela's memorial service will be held Tuesday in Johannesburg, followed by a smaller funeral on Dec. 15 in Mandela's hometown.

"My whole family will be there," Clinton said in an interview with CNN. "And we're looking forward to having the chance to say good-bye one last time."

President Obama was inspired by the South African leader. "Like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set," Obama said Thursday.


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