Africa and the Middle East

Aspen Institute President and CEO Reflects on Nelson Mandela’s Legacy

December 9, 2013  • Sarai Johnson, Guest Blogger

Nelson Mandela statue at the South African Embassy in Washington, DC (Photo Credit: Ted Eytan/Flickr)

As the world mourns the death of South African activist and former President Nelson Mandela, thought leaders around the globe are discussing the great legacy he left behind.

In an interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel, Aspen Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson discussed Mandela’s work in terms of Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man Theory.”

“…If you were to argue Carlyle’s case, that history and the arc of history is sort of influenced by great people, Mandela would probably be your primary example because he’s somebody who, by his very existence, history would have turned out slightly differently or maybe very differently had he not been around,” said Isaacson of Mandela’s significance as a leader. He went on to discuss Mandela’s presidency and his work to transition South Africa out of apartheid:

Not only does he help make the transition but he becomes a leader of reconciliation. And thirdly, he steps down after one term. Nobody else in Africa has done that and the continent has been the poorer for it.

Isaacson, who has written biographies of other great leaders: Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin, summed up the magnitude of Mandela’s legacy in one sentence: “Now that I see history up close, I know what a difference individuals can make.”

Listen to the entire interview here

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