In Our View: He Changed the World

Nelson Mandela grew to represent the notion of strength through peace

Published:

 

In the end, he came to personify perseverance and dignity, a political prisoner who became president of his country and a symbol of freedom.Nelson Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95, leaving behind a legacy as a 20th Century icon, a civil rights leader, and the first black president of South Africa. That he managed to achieve such a status after spending 27 years as a political prisoner of his nation's oppressive minority regime makes his story all the more remarkable.

• • •

"Difficulties break some men but make others."

• • •

To understand Mandela is to understand his times. While Americans likely are familiar with the civil-rights story in this country, with the struggle of African-Americans seeking equality in housing, voting, schooling, and other basic facets of society, the story of South Africa and the level of discrimination that pocked that nation is difficult to comprehend. Racial segregation had begun under Dutch rule during colonial times, and following World War II the ruling white minority instituted a systematic segregation system known as Apartheid. Non-white political representation was abolished in 1970; blacks were stripped of their citizenship and forcibly moved out of their homes; opposition to the ruling party was prohibited.

Mandela, a leader of the opposition, had been sentenced to life in prison in 1962, and the government banned use of his image or his words. As international pressure and internal strife threatened South Africa throughout the 1980s, the country began to change. Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and began negotiations with president F.W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid. When free elections were held in 1994, the African National Congress was victorious, and Mandela was chosen as president.

• • •

"Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice allfor the freedom of their people."

• • •

That is where the story of Nelson Mandela takes perhaps its most important turn. Rather than extract a pound of flesh from his former oppressors, Mandela worked toward an uneasy reconciliation for the people of his country, forming what was called a Government of National Unity in an attempt to defuse racial tension. The transition was a precarious one, but Mandela emphasized a politics of inclusion during his five-year term as president.

Along the way, he may have unwittingly been the last of the 20th century's great pacifists. While Mandela had embraced a militant stance prior to his imprisonment and had organized sabotage campaigns, he came to represent the notion of strength through peace that had been the hallmark of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. before him. He came to represent an era in which stirring words and unfettered patience could change the world.

• • •

"It always seems impossible until it's done."

• • •

That will be the lasting legacy of Nelson Mandela, whose death brought an outpouring of grief and platitudes from throughout the world. That one man from South Africa could inspire millions throughout the world, come to symbolize so many of our finer human traits, and become forever hailed as the "Father of his country" is a story that will long be celebrated. As President Obama said, "He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages."