Destiny had fashioned in Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela an aristocratic visage, a light common touch, rigorous self-discipline, gracious humility and unimpeachable integrity. On Dec. 5, Mandela took the last step on his long walk to freedom. That was the title of his memorable 1994 autobiography, the movie version of which was released recently.

The evocative title was inspired by India’s independence leader and first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who, more than half a century earlier, wrote that “there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountain tops.”

In 1980, India conferred the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding on Mandela. With Mandela still in prison, the award was accepted by then-ANC President Oliver Tambo who, in the acceptance speech, poignantly and presciently noted that Nehru had served the world far better as a free man as head of independent India’s government than as a British political prisoner during the Raj.

Mandela’s life also had many parallels with that of Mahatma Gandhi: two extraordinary people who bent the arc of history toward their chosen destinations. In the course of their respective long walks to freedom for India and South Africa, both left large and indelible footprints in the sands of world history.

Both began their campaigns against racial and colonial oppression and injustice in South Africa. Both were lawyers who spent time in Johannesburg’s Old Fort prison (Gandhi in 1906, Mandela in 1962). Unlike Gandhi, who never held public office, Mandela’s walk took him on a fateful journey from prison to president. In 2001, India gave him the Gandhi Peace Prize for “exemplary work” in promoting peace and nonviolence.

India’s freedom journey began with Gandhi’s experiences, reflections and political experiments in South Africa. India’s independence leaders held that their freedom would be incomplete until South Africa was liberated from apartheid. This emotional resonance transcended hard-edged calculations of national interest and explains why from the start, India was the most passionate and effective global champion of eliminating apartheid.

The reverence of Indians for Mandela was recognized with the award of the country’s highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India), in 1990 — only the second non-Indian to be accorded this accolade. Shortly after his release in 1990 from 27 years in prison, Mandela chose to visit India as his first overseas destination. The emotional bond between the two countries was reaffirmed when South African cricket too chose India as its first overseas tour and the team received a rapturous welcome on arrival in Kolkata. All this helps to explain why India has declared five days of state mourning for the death of the conscience of mankind.

The South African people’s reaction has been as much to celebrate an extraordinary life as to mourn the passing of the father of the nation. Affectionately known by his clan name Madiba, Mandela inspired South Africa, Africa and the world with his vision of a democratic society free of racism and prejudice. He encouraged tolerance and forgiveness and helped us to imagine a future where the most vulnerable and marginalized people would be free from fear and want.

He preached and practiced the creed that healing begins with forgiveness and justice can light up even the darkest corners of humanity’s common abode.

The promise of a just society in which human rights are safeguarded has inspired all of Africa since Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. His legacy includes the establishment of constitutional democracy in South Africa and the replication of these values and ideals across Africa. He will be remembered as a passionate protagonist of pan-Africanism who went out of his way to help solve some of Africa’s most devastating conflicts. Fifty years after the formation of the African Union and the Organization of African Unity before it, Mandela’s belief in a politically and economically independent continent remains a priority for African leaders today.

South Africa’s first democratically elected government, with Mandela as founding post-apartheid president, invested substantial effort in transforming an apartheid military at war with the majority of its people and the region, into a national defense force under civilian control. The challenge of reforming the country’s brutal apartheid police force into a professional community-orientated police service was met with a similar resolve.

Mandela recognized the importance of an independent judiciary able to hold to account even the most politically powerful person in the country. In 1998, in an unprecedented move for a serving president, he submitted himself to the courts when summoned to defend his decision to set up a commission to investigate alleged racism, corruption and nepotism in South African rugby.

Mandela was to guide South Africa through the extraordinarily difficult and delicate process of transition from a white supremacist apartheid regime to an inclusive, multiracial rainbow nation. His model of transitional justice to promote reconciliation-within-accountability lighted the way for other countries emerging from protracted sectarian conflict.

Many leaders-in-waiting are found wanting when called to greatness on assuming office. Mandela was one of the few to attain that lofty status, both by the manner of how he exercised public power for social purposes and how he left office voluntarily after just one term, with grace and dignity intact and reputation enhanced. In prison, he had exercised a de facto veto over apartheid South Africa’s foreign policy. Out of power after leaving office, he continued to wield extraordinary influence as the moral compass and voice of the nation, in Africa and the world.

Mandela transcended South Africa and Africa. He was a towering international figure whose legacy of courage, leadership and tenacity of vision will continue to inspire generations to come across the whole world. His ambitions for a society characterized by justice, dignity and human rights for all remain unfulfilled.

We shall honor his memory by striving to ensure that his vision is realized, in South Africa, across the African continent and in the world beyond. For above all and transcending all the setbacks that history dealt him, Mandela was an eternal optimist who believed in the possibility of improvement and progress by appealing to the better angels of our nature.

Dr. Jakkie Cilliers is executive director of the Institute for Security Studies; Australian National University professor Ramesh Thakur is a member of the ISS Advisory Council, which met in Pretoria on Dec. 5-6.

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