Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at 95, showed the world a remarkable vision of leadership that arises all too seldom. Patient and unrelenting in his efforts to overturn South Africa’s vicious apartheid regime, Mandela was a pillar of grace, magnanimity, and restraint in victory.
For his unwillingness to compromise with his country’s white-supremacist government, Mandela spent 27 years in prison. He spoke to his resolve in the brutal years in Robben Island prison, years often marked by pointless pounding on rocks in a lime quarry, by saying, “any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose because I will not part with it at any price or under any pressure.” Mandela said his faith in humanity was “sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair.” Finally, in the 1990s, the world anti-apartheid movement — and his own diplomatic acumen — helped force his release from prison, and he went on to become South Africa’s first president elected in a full democracy.
The apartheid regime had long smeared Mandela as a dangerous radical, but the new president’s time in office was marked by reconciliation rather than revenge. His stable hand helped maintain the nation’s status as a top economic engine on the African continent. He found some common ground between the races through sport. His sense of fairness vaulted South Africa to world leadership on issues such as gay rights. The country has much work to do; much of the black populace remains gripped in township poverty, to the unfocused attention of current leaders. Yet Mandela proved that progress was possible — and that generations-old divisions could end not in score-settling, but in an honest search for peaceful coexistence. When Mandela walked out of prison, he said, “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”