Two special centennials: Mandela and Sheikh Zayed were both symbols of humanity and progress

As the legends of both men pass into the annals of history, the example they set is still relevant, writes Peter Hellyer

epa06894987 Former US President Barack Obama speaks during the annual Mandela Lecture to commemorate Mandela Day, Johannesburg, South Africa, 17 July 2018. Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela 100 years ago and the lecture is part of a week long celebration of his life.  EPA/STR
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As events and activities continue throughout the UAE to mark the Year of Zayed, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s Founding Father, it’s appropriate to note that another centenary occurs this year – that of the birth of the inspirational South African leader Nelson Mandela.

Born on July 18, 1918, Mandela died in December 2013, having led his people out of the horrors of apartheid into a new non-racial society. He is rightly remembered as "father of the nation".

His opposition to racism and discrimination is aptly summed up in one of his statements after the defeat of apartheid, in which he recognised the essential roots of the problem: “The liberation struggle of our people was not about liberating blacks from bondage. It was about liberating white people from fear. And there it was, fear melting away.”

Last week, a Mandela centenary exhibition opened in the Southbank Centre in London. It runs until August 19 and has been organised by a committee chaired by Peter Hain, an old friend and colleague on the executive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) nearly half a century ago.

The event includes photographs, talks on aspects of Mandela's life, momentos of various kinds, such as a pickaxe used in the prison on Robben island where Mandela and fellow inmates were incarcerated for more than two decades.

UAE citizens and residents visiting London over the next few weeks might find it worth a visit, to learn a little more about a man whose life continues to offer us a powerful message.

London emerged as the centre of the global movement against apartheid partly because the UK was a former colonial power and many exiled South Africans made their homes there. It’s a natural location for a Mandela memorial event.

Much more, of course, is taking place in South Africa itself. One prominent participant in the range of activities there has been former US president Barack Obama, who made use of the occasion to make his first major political speech since ending his term of office.

Carefully phrased, it represented a clarion call, a restatement of some of the key elements that underpinned both his political philosophy and that of Mandela – such as a commitment to inclusiveness, a rejection of views that sought to promote division and a recognition of the worth of every human being.

Mr Obama clearly has major concerns about the rabid, divisive, fear-based xenophobic populism now seen ever more widely in the US, Europe and elsewhere. Mandela would have shared those concerns.

“The progressive, democratic vision that Nelson Mandela represented in many ways set the terms of international political debate,” Mr Obama said in his speech. ”It doesn’t mean that vision was always victorious but it set the terms, the parameters; it guided how we thought about the meaning of progress and it continued to propel the world forward.”

Mandela reminds us, Mr Obama said, that “no-one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

As the years pass, the life and record of Mandela, just like that of Sheikh Zayed, are no longer part of the present. They become part of history while the individuals themselves become almost a matter of legend. Yet the examples they gave, the lessons they offered about, for instance, the building of a multicultural, multi-racial tolerant society, are relevant not only to their time and to their countries, but more generally and on a continuing basis.

It becomes ever more important, therefore, not simply to remember them as great leaders of a receding past but as people whose contribution remains valid and useful today and for the years ahead.

Perhaps that is particularly so in a world in which, over the last few years, as Mr Obama said, “a politics of fear and resentment and retrenchment began to appear and that kind of politics is now on the move".

In a column I wrote just after Mandela’s death, I compared him and Sheikh Zayed to all the other politicians and statesmen I have met over the years, saying that they stood out as men “who presided over a positive change in their nations and [in the way they did so], offered a lesson of lasting value to their people and to the wider world beyond.”

Sheikh Zayed and Mandela were, in many ways, very different. Their backgrounds and origins, the trajectories of their political careers, the contrast between South Africa and the United Arab Emirates – all of these things divided them.

Yet there is a commonality between the examples they set, the messages they presented and the essential humanity they shared, which rises above those differences. It is somehow appropriate that this year, 2018, marks the centenary of the birth of both of these great figures.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture