Nelson Mandela was one of the towering figures of the 20th century, a man who saw that the way to end one of the most brutally repressive regimes in history was not violence but honest negotiations based on truth and reconciliation. Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95.
People around the world are mourning his passing — and with good reason. Mandela’s dignity, grace and charismatic leadership gave him a stature far beyond what might be expected for a politician from a nation so far outside the West’s sphere of interest. Viewed as a terrorist and a traitor by some, revered as a patriot and liberator by others, Mandela’s lifelong struggle for freedom in South Africa commands at least respect if not outright admiration.
Mandela led South Africa away from the apartheid regime of white-minority rule to a democratic government and in 1994 became his country’s first freely elected president. Mandela walked away from the presidency after his one five-year term was up, preferring the role of elder statesman to that of the power-mad tyrants so common in Africa’s less fortunately governed nations.
While president, Mandela strove for national unity and spared South Africa much of the bloodshed that tormented other African nations shaking off their colonial past.
Britain’s The Telegraph newspaper compared Mandela favorably to Winston Churchill.
“Like Britain’s wartime leader, Mandela appeared as a man of destiny who saved his country at the hour of its greatest peril,” the Telegraph wrote in its obituary.
Mandela in his early years was one of the founders of the youth wing of African National Congress, a sometimes violent liberation movement allied with communist forces. Mandela later was a leader of the militant wing of the ANC and directed its largely ineffective bombing campaign. For this activity, Mandela was arrested and convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government in 1964. He was sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. In later years, leaders in the white-minority government would struggle to find a way to release him while saving face.
In prison, Mandela continued his struggle against apartheid and gained international celebrity. He earned praise from world leaders as diverse as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and France’s Francois Mitterand. In 1990, after having declined offers of freedom in exchange for renouncing his struggle against apartheid, Mandela was released from prison.
“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison,” Mandela said after his release.
Together with South African President F.W. de Klerk, Mandela set the conditions for the transition from apartheid regime to multi-party democracy. The two men were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1994, Mandela became his country’s first president elected by all its people.
As president, Mandela committed himself to national unity and reconciliation, rather than vengeance for the decades of oppressive apartheid rule. In doing so, Mandela built a sense of nationhood among all South Africans and avoided what would likely have been a bloody civil war.
“If this man wasn’t there,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu told The Telegraph, “the whole country would have gone up in flames.”
The contrast with neighboring Zimbabwe, where a years-long civil war soaked the former Rhodesia in blood and corrupt tyrant Robert Mugabe lives in luxury while his people starve, is telling.
Mandela fought for years against a regime that was morally unsupportable, spent 27 years incarcerated at the hands of his oppressors yet emerged from prison without bitterness to lead his nation to freedom and justice. He is indeed worthy of our admiration and respect.