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.