Few political leaders have ever had to carry the incredible burden of bringing a divided nation together like Nelson Mandela did in South Africa.
Mandela proved up to the task of being the transformative figure South Africa needed because of his willingness to change himself, abandoning the mantra of a fighter to becoming the embodiment of national reconciliation.
Mandela had served as an African National Congress guerilla leader and was imprisoned for his role in the armed rebellion against the South African government, hence his one-time designation as a terrorist that has been mocked in retrospect. The ANC was more than just an indigenous opposition party, having received financial and military support from the Soviet Union.
The ANC’s tactics were not limited to the non-violent protests advocated by Gandhi or Martin Luther King.
As part of their campaign to end Apartheid, ANC coordinated lethal bomb attacks against government and civilian targets and not infrequently committing heinous acts of violence against their black rivals.
Mandela’s wife Winnie, whom the international icon would later divorce, had been implicated in murder and torture plots.
Such facts may be inconvenient to those who wish to present a pristine Mandela narrative, but they also serve to underscore his later rejection of violence by all sides, including by those affiliated with his own movement and set the stage for his ascension as South Africa’s first post-Apartheid leader.
South Africa could have devolved into the sequel of their neighbor to the northeast, Zimbabwe. The former Rhodesia traded one exclusionary government for another where white property owners have had their land arbitrarily seized and deadly violence against the few remaining white farmers is common.
Conditions for blacks in what was once considered the “Breadbasket of Africa” are less than optimal under the de facto dictatorship of Robert Mugabe. Hyperinflation of their currency, brutal persecution of black and white opponents, the world’s lowest life expectancy and gross corruption have been characteristic of the Mugabe regime’s three decades in power.
That was the nightmare many white South Africans feared with the end of Apartheid. It did not come to pass due in large part to the leadership and example of Mandela.
King George III wondered to the artist Benjamin West as to George Washington’s future intentions with the American Revolution concluded.
The Pennsylvania-born painter said Washington would not cling to the power as the commander of the rebel forces and would simply return to his farm.
Impressed by the prediction but likely skeptical at the prospect, the British monarch opined, “If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Just as Washington exhibited uncommon self-restraint by resisting the allure of power, the former political prisoner turned national leader did not give in to the temptation of settling scores once in a position of authority and is rightfully considered one of the greatest men in the world.
As leader of country whose newly empowered indigenous population constituted a majority, Mandela could have followed the path of vengeance and anger but chose peace and progress.
For the task of leading the tense and turbulent transition from Apartheid to pluralism, Mandela was South Africa’s best hope.
Through fostering the spirit of reconciliation Mandela unshackled South Africa from its past and emerged as a giant on the world stage, universally revered by his fellow leaders and by hundreds of millions people across the globe. And in the process, helped avoid enormous bloodshed and prevented South Africa’s economy from experiencing a cataclysmic melt down.
The transition was hardly smooth (the ugly details having been conveniently forgotten by the media) though it was relatively successful.
Though statues of him have been erected in London and Washington in his lifetime, flags have been lowered to half-staff in capitals around the world in mourning and even the NFL conducted moments of silence in his honor prior to kickoff in last week’s games in observance of his death, the best way for Mandela to be honored is for South Africans to continue to work together so that his legacy of peace continues long after his passing.
Every day South Africa avoids drifting towards becoming Zimbabwe is a day that Mandela’s spirit continues to live.