We won’t try to match the rhetoric of some of the world’s leaders reflecting on the life of Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95.
Instead, we’ll marvel at the man and at his long struggle against apartheid, the official and brutal discrimination policy against blacks by a tiny white minority that ruled South Africa.
Among so many traits discussed on television and in print as news of his death spread Thursday, it is his dignity and determination that are among the most striking. Without them, he could not have overcome the 27 years — more than one-fourth of his life — that he served of a life sentence for conspiracy and sabotage. The fact that this episode of his life has been told and retold doesn’t diminish the courage he demonstrated, not just to withstand decades behind bars but, as President Clinton observed, to do so “without having his heart turned into stone.” He emerged no less determined, but with greater stature because of his historic pivot toward reconciliation and forgiveness.
Without his determination, the world might not have rallied to his cause, demanding an end to apartheid and calling for his release from prison. And his dignity was on conspicuous display Feb. 13, 1990, just two days after he was finally released from prison. When he addressed tens of thousands of his fellow countrymen in a soccer stadium in Soweto that day, he declared, “The march toward freedom and justice is irreversible.”
He did triumph over apartheid, in 1994 becoming South Africa’s first black president as the entire world cheered. He didn’t rule so much as he truly presided, and he sought justice rather than vengeance over those who had mistreated him and so many millions of his countrymen for so long. When his achievements were honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993, the honor was shared with F.W. de Klerk, the white South African leader who had been a symbol of apartheid and with whom Mr. Mandela worked to ensure a peaceful transition.
Mr. Mandela chose to serve just one term as president of South Africa and rose to become a transcendent international symbol of equality and justice. His words carried extraordinary weight because of the personal price he paid for the knowledge and wisdom behind them.
Humanity has been blessed by the life of Nelson Mandela. He was a force for profound good in a world in which such individuals are rare.