The death of Nelson Mandela reminds us that single people with passion and commitment are the ones who make real difference in the world. Although there is always a collective who is ultimately responsible for amassing the power to effect such change, it is in the minds of individuals such as Nelson Mandela that the impetus for change begins.
This recognition of the crucial role that an individual can play in effecting social change, stands in stark contrast to the role that the individual is encouraged to play under the current consumer driven practices of today’s neo-liberal economies, whereby individuals rarely drive social change, nor are they required to. Instead, comforts are provided and rewards are given in return for the acquiescence of the passive consumer. Rights are commodified, such as the complaints about the inequality of women being addressed with market solutions whereby women’s increased participation in the workforce is facilitated with the increase in the availability of childcare, with little regard being paid to the underlying social issues which lead to this inequality.
Under such democracies, not only are individuals encouraged to focus on individual comforts to appreciate the communal benefits of capitalism, the voice of the individual is rendered ineffective, reduced to a mark on a ballot paper, whilst at the same time reassuring an unassuming population that they have “participated “, having had a “say” , all the while not having to actually determine what one is saying, or what ideals one stands for past one’s own four walls, (for those of us lucky enough to have them).
The form of individualism supported by individuals such as Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi looks to the far greater and essential role individuals can play in focusing outwards and seeing the individual as more than a passive consumer of the market democracy, but rather the source of social change. By encouraging each individual to think for themselves and stand up and fight for ideals they believe in, invokes an existence in which it is a position of participation in the world which is valued, rather than a position of consuming. This supports progress in crucial social change such as the fight against group inequality and environmental causes.
This notion also arguably helps us as humans understand our significance in a universe populated by so many. Contrary to the pessimism often expressed by poets, writers and philosophers about the reality of our insignificance in the universe, representing the ultimate threat to our sanity and existence, Mandela reminds us that individuals are not insignificant if they choose not to be.
Rest in Peace Madiba.