A 20th-century hero and icon

Nelson Mandela has died. The man who guided South Africa to multiracial democracy, winning the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize in the process, was an icon of the 20th century, a larger-than-life figure who embodied for many the eternal fight for justice.

Mandela’s life was a testimony to the need to put aside the anger and desire for vengeance that was rightfully his and to embrace the very best in humanity, regardless of race.

The outline of Mandela’s life is well known. He was born July 18, 1918, to the chief councilor to the chief of the Thembu people in Transkei, attended an elite black university but left before completing his studies to join the African National Congress (ANC), and set up its youth wing. He worked as a law clerk and became a lawyer despite the limited opportunities available to blacks in that field. Soon after, Mandela was convicted of violating the Suppression of Communism Act, but his sentence was suspended.

While Mandela is today associated with peaceful reconciliation, he was one of the first ANC members to advocate armed resistance to apartheid and was forced underground when he established the armed wing of the ANC. He left South Africa to study the best way to advance the armed struggle and build support for the ANC.

Upon his return to South Africa in 1962, he was arrested and sentenced to five years for incitement and illegally leaving the country. During that incarceration he was charged with sabotage and plotting to overthrow the White government in South Africa.

Called a terrorist by the government that daily terrorized the majority of the South African population, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 and sent to Robben Island, a penal colony off Cape Town, where he would spend 18 years as one of the world’s most famous political prisoners. Several times he was offered a conditional release; in one instance, he would have to renounce violence as a political weapon. He declined, insisting that “What freedom am I being offered while the organization of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.”

The effort to isolate and marginalize Mandela was a failure. Ironically it was South Africa that was increasingly marginalized in the world, and Mandela’s shadow that grew longer. The majority population of blacks and “colored” in South Africa became increasingly restive, and the thin veneer of legitimacy that cloaked the apartheid government became ever more shabby. When that government recognized that its time had run out, it turned to Mandela to negotiate a transition to majority rule.

Mandela was released from prison in February 1990, an event that was broadcast live around the world. Talks that were launched while he was in prison became official negotiations between the ANC and the government, culminating in all-race elections in April 1994, a ballot won by the ANC and taking Mandela to the presidency of South Africa, a post he held for one five-year term.

Mandela will be remembered for insisting on the dignity of all humanity, and for refusing, when in prison or in power, to give in to baser instincts. He sought equality and freedom for all South Africans, fighting against white domination and black domination alike. He brought an end to apartheid without sparking a civil war, an outcome many thought inevitable. Not only did Mandela help engineer a peaceful transition, through his efforts he also managed to avoid a mass exodus of the white population as well as the disassembling of the South African economy.

While he was born a leading member of his tribe, Mandela understood the thinking of the people. He appreciated the value of a gesture: His support for the national rugby team, the Springboks, long considered a symbol of white South Africa, won over many Afrikaners. Perhaps his greatest legacy will be the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was empowered to grant amnesty for political crimes committed by all sides during the dark years of apartheid if it believed the person seeking amnesty had provided full disclosure.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is widely considered an outstanding success and a model for similar reconciliation efforts around the world.

But essential to its success was the backing of Mandela himself. His unwavering support for justice, rather than revenge, along with his calls for respect and tolerance provided both ballast and guidance for a process that could have easily gone off the rails.

Of course, there are detractors. For some, an implacable minority, Mandela will always be a communist whose support for liberation movements worldwide — especially those that backed him and his cause when they were outlaws and that Mandela refused to criticize when he was in power — will blacken his image.

Some blame him for the failings of subsequent ANC leaders and for the fact that South Africa has failed to realize its potential and is instead mired in political squabbles and corruption.

South Africa may not be all that it can be, but it is an indication of Mandela’s remarkable achievement that his country did not fall apart when he left office.

Mandela insisted that “he wanted to be remembered as an ordinary South African who, together with others, has made his humble contribution.” Nothing could be further from the truth.