As so often happens, the occasion of a person’s death becomes a time not only for mourning the end of a life but also for celebrating a life well-lived. When the departed is counted among the greatest advocates for human rights in all of modern history, a figure who inspired untold millions with his courage and resolve, there is much to celebrate and to remember.
It was Nelson Mandela’s stupendous achievement to have led his native South Africa out of the clutches of entrenched official racism. His election as president in 1994 marked a fitting symbolic end to the country’s long embrace of apartheid, the system that crushed black citizens under boulders of discrimination in housing, education, employment and virtually every civic endeavor.
What gave Mandela, dead now in the fullness of 95 years, his special force in the struggle to overturn apartheid was not only his cool and confident bearing – he was the son of a tribal chief — or his eloquence.
He brought as well a life story that highlights the possibility of victory in a righteous cause against all odds. Sentenced to life in prison, Mandela endured 27 years as a captive amid conditions that could easily have broken a lesser man. But not long after his release as apartheid crumbled, he was taking the presidential oath of office as South Africa transitioned to a democracy in which blacks could begin to exert a fair share of political power.
There should be no mistaking the young Nelson Mandela for a nonviolent change agent in the Gandhi mold. The tribulations of apartheid drove him to align with forces for whom violence was an acceptable tool. His imprisonment was the price he paid.
But during years of confinement on Robben Island, dispatched from a cell each day to hard labor in a limestone quarry, Mandela gained perspective on both his own plight and the grand goals he sought.
He sensed that the weight of world opinion could work to his advantage as people of good will everywhere grew more and more impatient with the South African regime while it continued to impose a system that breached so many civic norms.
He also realized that the Afrikaners who drew their power and privilege from apartheid could not be expected to surrender their entire way of life overnight. There would have to be accommodations, born of negotiations. And in fact, South Africa could not have prospered going forward if the country’s white-run institutions had been dismantled or trashed.
So it was Mandela the principled pragmatist who acted as a bridge between the white establishment and the country’s oppressed black majority. Through force of character and with the confidence that comes from knowledge that one’s cause is just, he talked the Afrikaners off their untenable ledge. His election as president, four years after his release from prison, amounted to a national salute to the success of his domestic diplomacy. A global salute had come when he was chosen to receive the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize – an honor he shared with President F.W. de Klerk, last leader of the white regime.
Mandela served one five-year presidential term, declining to run again. Not unexpectedly, there were rocky periods as the country adjusted to a new order in which black citizens held the political reins. But South Africa never descended into chaos and never surrendered its spot as the continent’s most prosperous nation. Millions of citizens enjoyed new opportunities, and South Africa no longer was counted as an international pariah because of how its dark-skinned citizens were treated.
Nelson Mandela certainly must be seen as an extraordinarily skilled politician and visionary national leader. What elevates him to an even higher level was his success as a champion of justice, mindful of all the benefits that flow to members of a just society.
His journey from a prison cell to the president’s office was a compelling testament to his own strength and to the power of his ideals. People everywhere who work to secure the rights of the oppressed, even when the obstacles seem immovable, can look to Mandela as a beacon of hope.