The reaction to the passing of Nelson Mandela is reminder of how rare it is for a leader, particularly a political one, to reach the level of universal and unanimous acclaim that Mandela did. The former South African president and civil rights hero won the hearts of more or less everybody — except for Dick Cheney, perhaps unsurprisingly — and aside from a few troublemaking naysayers, few people had anything negative to say about him when he passed Thursday.
That being said, the reactions to his death weren’t uniform. There were the inevitable Paul Walker comparisons. There were the inevitable outraged responses to those Paul Walker comparisons. Some people commented that Mandela looks kind of like Morgan Freeman (who played Mandela in Invictus); this led to a lot of people criticizing others for making that comparison. One person was able to find the humor in the mixup:
As is usually the case when a political figure dies, many people couldn’t resist using Mandela’s death to make some political point or another.
This, unsurprisingly, led to the predictable “don’t politicize someone’s death” backlash.
But Slate’s Dave Weigel, always the contrarian, then argued that we should, in fact, politicize Mandela’s death:
Nelson Mandela was a political activist. He ran in the first election he was allowed to run in -- and won, obviously. When politics failed him, he joined the African National Congress, which engaged in infrastructure terrorism against an oppressive state. Just this one time I've got to agree with Bill Ayers: Mandela was not some safe, muppety "civil rights activist." He was a "loving revolutionary" and "officially a 'terrorist' according to the U.S. government until long after" he'd been freed and was touring the world as a hero.
The fact that many in the West — particularly Ronald Reagan — once considered Mandela a terrorist, and assisted the racist apartheid regime he fought against, made his passing slightly awkward. Many were happy to point this out.
It even paved the way for some George W. Bush rehabilitation.
Perhaps Jamil Smith found the best middle ground in the politicize/don’t politicize debate:
Some people’s praise bordered on hyperbole...
...while others were quite frank in admitting that they weren’t in a position to speak about him.
Other well-meaning mourners seemed a bit confused about which country Mandela was the president of:
Many referred to Mandela as “a true gangster,” or some variation thereof. Would Mandela would have accepted such a designation? That’s debatable, but hey, praise is praise.
And many came to an understanding that, while sad, Mandela’s death was ultimately an opportunity to celebrate his life and contributions to this world.