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The Death of an Elder

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

An Elder has died. With Nelson Mandela’s death, “the world has lost a visionary leader, a courageous voice for justice, and a clear moral compass … an inspiration to us all,” said Kofi Annan in a message last week.

Nelson Mandela was the founder of a network of world leaders, called the Elders. The Elders are former holders of public office, former heads of state, activists, visionaries. They are independent, and their mission is to build peace. Mandela, as founder, was an Honorary Elder in this organization, but he was also an Elder to all of us. The global public’s strong emotional reaction to Mandela’s death indicates how deeply rooted the role of an Elder is even in today’s society, which seems to have gone a long way since the days of tribal culture, in which elders were formally acknowledged as leaders and advisors.



In traditional and religious societies, the position, formal or informal, of an elder is a function of age, experience, knowledge, and leadership. Elders provide guidance and advice, they provide an anchor point, often spiritual, in a complex and difficult life. In modern society, Elders still have that role, although it is less typical for them to be formally recognized. And some of them have become “World Elders”—advisors and teachers to more than one society, more than one nation. Mandela was such a World Elder.

Reconciliation is a key role of an Elder. Mandela’s work, especially as President of South Africa, was dedicated to reconciling a country deeply divided. Some criticize him for focusing on reconciliation more than on eradicating all social and racial injustice in South Africa. But his emphasis on reconciliation turned the freedom fighter into an Elder.

The death of an Elder leaves a void. But it also makes us aware how relevant, emotionally and practically, the example and inspiration of a wise old man or woman is in today’s modern society. 

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Picture credit: Benadia