So much has already been eloquently said about the passing of Nelson Mandela that it is daunting to add anything. (All the more so after Barack Obama's profound eulogy today in South Africa.) In a way, too, words are superfluous; a life so extraordinary speaks so directly to our hopes for a just world. How could someone have shown so much courage, endured so much and emerged with such grace and wisdom?
Some part of the answer may actually lie in law. Mandela of course was a lawyer, but he equally was a lawbreaker. (Leading a guerrilla campaign is rarely legal.) He was not bound by law - not the apartheid state's, nor even the ANC's internal norms, which he slipped by to initiate the negotiations that ultimately brought apartheid to an end.
Nevertheless he cared about law. When he famously declared that he found himself facing charges as a black man in a white man's court -- and wore traditional African clothes to make the point, though he was a notably stylish Western dresser -- he was at pains to explain that he meant no personal disrespect to the white magistrate hearing the case.
When he became President of South Africa, he carefully demonstrated his respect for law. Famously (at least among lawyers) he unhesitatingly accepted an early Constitutional Court judgment that one of his executive orders was unconstitutional. More remarkably, really, he obeyed a subpoena to testify in a case challenging another of his actions, and then endured the trial judge - an unreconstructed hangover from the apartheid era - criticizing his credibility! (There are moments when justice is blind, deaf and dumb.)
All of this was strategic, certainly. But strategy is partly personality; the moves a leader makes tend to be the ones that fit him or her best. Certainly law was familiar to Mandela, as the co-founder - with another remarkable leader, Oliver Tambo - of South Africa's first black law firm. But his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom (1995), reflects not just legal knowledge but a love, a deeply frustrated love, of the law.
Here he is on his coming of age in the law:
As a student, I had been taught that South Africa was a place where the rule of law was paramount and applied to applied to all persons, regardless of their social status or official position. I sincerely believed this and planned my life based on that assumption. But my career as a lawyer and activist removed the scales from my eyes. (260)
And here he is, speaking to the court in the Rivonia trial which led to his sentence of life imprisonment:
I would say that the whole life of any thinking African in this country drives him continuously to a conflict between his conscience on the one hand and the law on the other. (330)
Later in this speech he declares:
But there comes a time, as it came in my life, when a man is denied the right to live a normal life, when he can only live the life of an outlaw because the government has so decreed to use the law to impose a state of outlawry upon him. (331)
This connection to law is not only a matter of philosophy but of style. Elsewhere in his autobiography Mandela writes:
I confess to being something of an Anglophile. When I thought of Western democracy and freedom, I thought of the British parliamentary system. In so many ways, the very model of the gentleman for me was an Englishman.... While I abhorred the notion of British imperialism, I never rejected the trappings of British style and manners. (302)
Mandela, it seems, was a revolutionary gentleman, and I take this to be partly a lawyerly attitude, for South African courts were notably structured on British models. The "trappings of British style and manners" surely include an emphasis on “order.” One who cares about order may still lead a people into war – as Abraham Lincoln did. But such a leader may be able to lead them into peace as well.
It’s also worth saying that lawyers care about small points as well as large - hence their reputation for fixating on technicalities. To see the possibility of peace in the midst of confrontation can be seen as sweeping inspiration rather than fascination with detail. And yet, in a certain sense, Mandela's ability to see the potential for an agreement - made up of hundreds or thousands of "small points" rather than one very large point of all-out racial war - was an expression of this capacity.
Nelson Mandela was a lot more than a lawyer - but I think that part of his strength was that he was a man of the law.