The past week was memorable for any number of reasons, not least of all the deepening of the Anglo-Irish bank scandal that inaugurated Ireland’s economic freefall and all but bankrupted the country. (Note: the Irish economy just slipped back into recession.) In Italy, the multi-millionaire former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was convicted of low crimes and misdemeanors (again) and sentenced to seven years in prison and banned from ever holding public office again. An appeal is in the works and it is widely believed that given his age and Italy’s legal eccentricities, he will probably never spend a night in prison. His media empire is vast, and hundreds of thousands of Italian voters routinely vote for him.
On a far more global scale, the world is now gathered, metaphorically, at the bedside of Nelson Mandela, “Madiba,” the 94-year-old ex-president and champion of human and civil rights who spent 27 years in prison for his campaign against apartheid in South Africa. He is not expected to survive for very long, though he has managed several times to outflank the lung infections he acquired so long ago during his awful 20-year imprisonment on Robben Island and in two other prisons.
Mandela is regarded as an icon of integrity and human values, one of the great revolutionary figures of the twentieth century whose place in history is secure alongside other champions of human rights and dignity. He has no great wealth, no media empire, no pocketed politicians growing rich off his patronage.
The contrast between two former heads of state could hardly be sharper. The great mystery remains, however: can money and power earn a morally dubious, conniving prevaricator anything more than a minor footnote in history compared to Madiba? It would hardly seem likely, but it’s a funny old world.