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Nelson Mandela named 20th century's greatest leader in BBC poll

11 January 2019 - 09:09 By Dave Chambers
A New York collector paid R2m for this portrait of Nelson Mandela by Adrian Steirn
A New York collector paid R2m for this portrait of Nelson Mandela by Adrian Steirn
Image: Adrian Steirn

Nelson Mandela is in the running to be declared the greatest person of the 20th century in a British poll.

Mandela has been chosen as the 20th century’s greatest leader in a poll run by a BBC television series, Icons.

Viewers’ votes saw Mandela, who died in 2013, beat the likes of British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill and the longest-serving US president, Franklin D Roosevelt, to the title.

The other finalist chosen so far, in the series’ explorers category, is Ernest Shackleton, the polar pioneer.

The other categories still to be decided are scientists, entertainers, activists, artists and writers, and sports.

The ultimate icon will be chosen during a live broadcast on February 5.

Explaining why Mandela prevailed in the leaders category, the BBC said:

1. He made difficult decisions

In 1952 Mandela was the deputy president of the ANC – a party determined to overthrow the racist apartheid regime in South Africa. Initially its policies were non-violent, but this changed after state police killed 69 black activists in 1960. Now the ANC, and Mandela with it, agreed to attacks on the state. Railway tracks, power lines and government buildings were all targeted and though the intention was never to kill, lives were lost.

2. His resilience inspired the world

After his arrest in 1962 Mandela was sentenced to life in prison and he was held on the remote Robben Island. He endured long stints of solitary confinement, often going without sleeping or toilet facilities – treatment designed to reinforce Mandela’s sense of powerlessness. Yet the opposite happened. Mandela became the focal point for a global campaign against apartheid which eventually forced the South African government to change its mind. He was finally released in 1991.

3. He was president for a whole nation

Once Mandela was elected president in South Africa’s first free elections in 1994 he did not seek retribution, despite his brutal prison treatment. Instead, he governed for the whole country, arguably preventing a civil war. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which aimed to heal South Africa through confession and forgiveness rather than revenge, was established during his time in office. It has since been used as a model for other countries.