There are few leaders on the international stage who symbolized nobility and integrity as spectacularly as Nelson Mandela.
By now, his accolades are a part of world history. He was the freedom fighter who, after 27 years of imprisonment for his work to tear down South Africa’s laws of rigid racial segregation, rose to lead his country in negotiations that led to a multi-racial democracy.
He would eventually become president of the very country that had imprisoned him, all while speaking passionately about the need for reconciliation and for initiatives to combat poverty and inequality. For the role he played in leading South Africa’s transition, always with a passion for forgiveness and reconciliation, Mandela received the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.
But more than anything, Mandela will be remembered by the gentility he demonstrated when dealing with political and ideological adversaries. He demonstrated how it was possible to disagree passionately but to remain temperate, focused and even genial.
Ultimately, Mandela would create a legacy that extended far beyond his native South Africa. He was a powerful icon, a figure who sent the message that standing up for one’s principles, even to the point of isolation and imprisonment, could lead to vindication and victory of dramatic proportion.
He was outspoken in defending the friends who stood by his African National Congress when it was fighting injustice. He exhibited the strength of his conviction when he was repeatedly asked by leaders in the United States to disavow nations and leaders that had supported the anti-apartheid movement – namely Fidel Castro of Cuba and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya -- with American presidents coddled the old regime.
“We should not abandon those who helped us in the darkest hour of the history of this country,” Mandela once said, speaking to President Bill Clinton. “They gave us the resources for us to conduct the struggle (against apartheid) and to win.”
Mandela was a lawyer who in his early adulthood became deeply involved in the movement to end South Africa’s laws of strict racial segregation. To American sensibilities, he was something of a mix between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. He was steeped in the ministry of nonviolence, and was a follower of the principles of Mahatma Gandhi.
In the other hand, Mandela would go on to lead the armed wing of the African National Congress during the years of apartheid, coordinating sabotage campaigns against military and government targets. Ultimately, Mandela described his involvement in armed activity as something he had come to reluctantly. But he said that years of brutal suppression of human rights in South Africa had convinced him that nonviolent confrontation might not always lead to progress.
In the end, it was Mandela’s years in prison on Robben Island that shaped him – and the international community that would come to know him. While in prison, he developed a reputation as the most important Black leader in the country. There was growing international pressure to on the South African government to release him, all in the midst of a worldwide campaign to put pressure on the regime to end apartheid.
By the time Mandela was released in 1990 under the directive of South African president Frederik Willem de Klerk, he had become an international symbol. That paved the way to his election as president of South Africa in 1994, a development that was biblical in its scope and one that would have been unthinkable only a few years earlier.
In his later years, he remained an important force in the fight to find solutions to his country’s AIDS crisis and as an advocate for various social and human rights causes. He continued to criticize any government – even the United States – when he thought it failed to live up to its potential. Until, he continued to be what he had always been, a magnificent force of nature committed to social justice and equality.
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