To fully appreciate what former South African President Nelson Mandela was able to accomplish, it is necessary to harken back to the South Africa he found when he emerged from prison in 1990, and what the country was like in those critical four years between his release and his election to the presidency in 1994.

Put simply, South Africa was a violent, dangerous and heavily armed place teetering precariously on the edge of an all-out race war. And in the early 1990s, it was entirely unclear which way the country would go.

On one side, embittered white rejectionists were refusing to even contemplate a future under black rule, and they were waging a campaign of subterfuge, sabotage and assassination. The racist paramilitary Afrikaner Resistance Movement, waving its Swastikalike flag, raided the conference center hosting the all-race peace talks negotiating apartheid's end. A right-wing Polish immigrant assassinated the charismatic anti-apartheid stalwart Chris Hani. White militants tried to prop up a black puppet dictator in the so-called homeland of Bophuthatswana and stirred up black-on-black violence in the townships. A bombing spree by white supremacists, targeting Johannesburg's Jan Smuts airport and the African National Congress offices, killed and wounded dozens.