What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead. – Nelson Mandela
Rare is the person who can change the world. Politicians come and go. Leaders exist in all walks of life, from business and academia to the arts and sciences, but seldom are they transformational. Once in a great while the world is blessed with a leader who, at tremendous personal sacrifice, overcomes intractable barriers of prejudice, hatred and institutional resistance to reform a nation and transform the world. Nelson Mandela was one such leader, an uncommon man of noble and heroic achievements.
I was but a passive and distant witness to the end of apartheid. Only three years old when Mandela was imprisoned in 1962, I did not learn of Mandela’s story until nearly twenty years later as a first-year law student in Washington, D.C., where the Free Mandela movement had taken hold in the early 1980’s. Along with the rest of the world, I became increasingly aware of the evils of apartheid as daily vigils and protests were staged outside the South African embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, and as divestment and boycott efforts spread across America’s college campuses. I was a 30 year-old prosecutor when Mandela was released from prison in 1990, a 35 year-old father of two when Mandela was elected South Africa’s president in 1994. As with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the triumph of Camp David in 1978, I was blessed to have witnessed, if only from afar, such a special moment in history.
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I grew up in a nation that celebrates the lives and birthdays of freedom fighters and revolutionaries – Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Franklin, men who conspired to commit armed rebellion against a government they deemed oppressive to the natural rights of man. Although the moral clarity of Mandela’s cause to end apartheid in South Africa is now universally acknowledged, his resistance to racial oppression rendered him an outlaw for most of his adult life. Mandela was labeled a terrorist for trying, like Washington and Jefferson, to liberate his people from a system of oppression that every nation on earth now recognizes was unjust.
Mandela was by nature non-violent, a life-long admirer of Gandhi; for years, he challenged apartheid and racism as a lawyer operating within the South African legal system. Only after South African police killed 69 innocent protestors during the Sharpeville massacre in 1961 did Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) resort to more radical measures, reluctantly concluding that non-violent resistance had proven ineffective against the entrenched system of racial oppression that was South Africa. I have my doubts that the ANC’s decision to support armed resistance was the right one. After all, history has proven time and again that non-violent resistance is, in the long run, far more effective in achieving the desired change. But Mandela was a reluctant warrior and would pay a heavy price for this change in tactics.
At his sentencing in 1964, Mandela freely acknowledged the intensity of his commitment to freedom and equality:
During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die for.
Banished to Robben Island, a brutally isolated prison in shark infested waters seven miles from the coast of Cape Town, for most of the next 27 years Mandela worked in labor camps and spent large blocks of time in solitary confinement. He was not allowed to communicate for many years with his family or the outside world. But through it all, he never lost sight of his vision for a better, more just world.
Even during his lowest moments, he recognized the humanity of his enemies. “All men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency” he wrote in Long Walk to Freedom, “If their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing.” His life is a testament to the power of forgiveness and reconciliation.
In the end, Mandela was a peacemaker, a gentle voice of reason at a time when the country could easily have disintegrated into bloody conflict and racial vengeance. “Whites are fellow South Africans,” Mandela said after his release from prison, “and we want them to feel safe and to know we appreciate the contribution that they have made toward the development of this country.” During his presidential campaign in 1994, Mandela emphasized the common interests of black and white South Africans. Despite their differences, he said, President F.W. de Klerk and he were “a shining example to the entire world of people drawn from different racial groups who have a common loyalty, a common love, to their common country.” On the day of his inauguration, Mandela declared South Africa a “rainbow nation,” his election “a common victory for justice, for peace, and for human dignity.”
Mandela understood that, while blacks and people of color were the most directly harmed by apartheid, all were victim of an unjust system of laws. Early in his presidency, he presided over the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed to balance justice with forgiveness and help the country come to terms with its history. “The oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed,” he later wrote. “A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.” Despite everything that Mandela had been through, his message remained one of hope.
[N]o one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love. . . . Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.
Mandela’s role as national conciliator was famously demonstrated during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when he enlisted the Springboks, the country’s rugby team and a source of great pride for white South Africans, to help unify the country. The Springboks had only one black player (for many years it had been all-white) and the country’s black population was not emotionally invested in the team. But Mandela seized the opportunity to use sports as a means of healing the racial division in post-apartheid South Africa. Although some had wished to change the name and colors of the Springboks to something more reflective of black African identity, Mandela refused. “That is selfish thinking,” he said, “It does not serve the nation.” He believed it important to let white Afrikaners know that a black-led South Africa would not overturn all of the country’s cherished symbols. When Mandela donned a Springboks hat and jersey and joined the team on the field following their victory over New Zealand in the World Cup final, the stadium of 80,000 people, mostly Afrikaners, erupted in a spontaneous chant of “Nel-son! Nel-son!” Although merely symbolic, it was an important moment of unity and healing.
Like George Washington and other great leaders of history, Mandela understood that every action on his part would form a model for others to follow. Although he could have been President for life, he declined to seek a second term as South Africa’s president, an act of grace, wisdom, and foresight. He knew that, for South Africa to succeed as a free nation, it was important that the institution of democracy take precedence over any one man.
Mandela’s greatest and most lasting legacy will always be his role in dismantling the system of racial apartheid and transforming South Africa into a multiracial nation committed to the principle of one-person, one-vote. South Africa is not a perfect democracy and it continues to struggle with issues of poverty, crime, and inequality. But because of Mandela, South Africa became, with relatively little bloodshed or vengeance, an inclusive, market-based democracy and a nation of laws with an entrenched Bill of Rights which recognizes that all men and women are created equal.
For me, Mandela will forever remain a giant man of history, not because he was perfect, he was not, but because he advanced the cause of human freedom with dignity, grace, and love. Although his flame is extinguished, his goodness lives on.