NEWBURYPORT — To say Nelson Mandela left South Africa, and indeed the world, a better place than he found it is an understatement.
His death on Thursday at the age of 95 marked the end of a life of that not only changed the history of his nation, but affected those living under oppression in every corner of every continent, providing hope that justice and freedom can be bought with persistence, peace and forgiveness, not with blood and hatred.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in 1918 into a nation with a government policy of apartheid, which, although 80 percent of its population was of black African descent, legalized racial segregation. Its laws discriminated against nonwhites in every manner of daily life — educationally, politically, legally and economically.
Mandela started his public crusade against apartheid in the 1940s, becoming a lawyer and leader in the movement to overthrow the racist government. He was eventually imprisoned for 27 years for his anti-apartheid actions, a political prisoner who became the symbol of the injustice of apartheid on the world stage.
International pressure led to his release from jail, but not until 1990, when he found a nation filled with social unrest and ripe for civil war. Instead of fostering violent revolution, Mandela worked together with those who persecuted him to eradicate apartheid. He earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, and became the first black president of the new democratic Republic of South Africa in 1994. Stepping down from the presidency in 1999, he remained a powerful global presence and philanthropist.
Many in the region remembered Mandela yesterday as a man whose legacy of harmony, not hatred, would live as an example forever.
When Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday heard Mendala had died, she said she paused to think through his impact on the world.
“He was an amazing advocate as far as what he was willing to endure to fight apartheid,” Holaday said. “He will go down in history as one of the greatest leaders in the world, a force for reconciliation and peace. His ability to bring people together was remarkable.”
Essex County Sheriff Frank Cousins said Mandela has always been a personal inspiration, especially his generosity to those who treated him badly. Given what Mandela went through for so long in prison, upon his release his refusal to retaliate with anger against his oppressors is an example that resonates with Cousins, and one from which everyone can benefit, he said.
“That’s a wonderful example he shared with us,” Cousins said. “Mandela set the tone for that type of behavior. It’s really a great lesson for all of us to learn to forgive and not be vindictive when people treat us badly.”
For state Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, D-Newburyport, Mandela was a man for the ages.
“President Nelson Mandela’s passing is a loss for the global community, as he was a living example of hope, conviction and bravery, working for human rights and dignity for all people,” O’Connor Ives said. “Still, for young and future generations to learn about his tireless will and learn from his example will keep his legacy alive.”
Salisbury Selectman Freeman Condon said it is Mandela’s resilience that amazes him, as well as his ability to put aside the personal wrongs done to him to work constructively for the greater good.
When Mandela was released from prison, Condon said, he found “a nation about to explode.” But, he refused to allow the system that mistreated him to turn him into a violent, bitter man, Condon said. The result was apartheid being dismantled peacefully and more quickly than it would have been through a bloody revolution.
“The number one thing that resounds with me is how the man could persevere without being bitter, but with a lot of forgiveness in his heart,” Condon said. “During those 27 years in jail, he was looked after by racist prison guards who didn’t treat him very well. He insisted they call him ‘Mr. Mandela’ or he wouldn’t answer them. He won people over by his dignity.”
Saddened by the news of Mandela’s death, U.S Rep. John Tierney also released a statement yesterday.
“Mr. Mandela was a once in a generation leader who overcame incredible odds to free a nation and become an inspiration to millions,” Tierney said. “His courageous stand for what was right taught us all that one man can indeed change the world.”