Nelson Mandela, a hero for all of us

National Post Editorial Board

When one surveys the current crop of global political leaders and former leaders, an interesting thought experiment presents itself: How many of these men and women would be universally mourned as a great hero, by people in all nations and of all walks of life, if they were to die tomorrow? It is hard to think of a single figure who would qualify according to this standard — except for former South African president Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday at age 95.

Mr. Mandela was a revered figure throughout the world because he dedicated himself to not one but two noble causes: racial equality within South African society, and the pursuit of racial reconciliation during the delicate period when that country was making its transition away from apartheid.

The fact that Mr. Mandela embraced both causes is critical to understanding his unparalleled stature as a post-colonial leader. History (and especially African history) is littered with great revolutionaries, guerrillas and tribal chieftains who crowned their victories with massacres and mass expulsions. But Mandela did not follow that path, despite the fact that 27 years in a white man’s prison might have stirred a bitter taste for racial vengeance in anyone’s soul.

It is important not to whitewash Mr. Mandela’s history. After working as a lawyer and activist with the African National Congress (ANC) in the 1950s, he eventually began to lead violent campaigns under the banner of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, a wing of the ANC which came to act as a terrorist organization. Yet Mr. Mandela had the strength of character necessary to walk away from such tactics. When apartheid’s twilight president, F.W. de Klerk, needed a negotiating partner to end his country’s disgraceful legacy of racist rule, it was Mr. Mandela who was on the other side of the table. Together, they set the stage for the universal-adult-suffrage elections of 1994.

Almost 20 million South African voted, with Mr. Mandela’s own ANC winning 63% of the vote. The date of that election, April 27, 1994 is observed as a holiday in South Africa: Freedom Day.

What happened next serves as an inspiration not only to Africa, but to every oppressive society making the transition to democracy: White South Africans were not massacred in the streets, or cast into the ocean in rickety ships as refugees. Under the moral leadership of Mr. Mandela, the country instituted a policy of Truth and Reconciliation. The racist horrors and injustices were not ignored. They were unearthed and discussed. But the process was a forward-looking one. The goal was to get South Africa beyond the scars of the past.

To this day, the South African experience with truth and reconciliation is still held up as a model for other nations and communities to pursue when they seek to overcome their own historical traumas. That includes Canadian aboriginals seeking to come to terms with our legacy of residential schools. Whenever a former student testifies about the abuse he suffered in such a school, we are hearing an echo of the process that Nelson Mandela helped pioneer two decades ago on the other side of the world.

Post-apartheid South Africa is hardly a paradise. It is beset by huge levels of crime, and racial tensions are still high in some parts of the country. The nation’s black elite, having had little experience with democracy before the 1990s, often exhibits the same corrupt habits as can be observed in many developing societies. Nor did it help matters much when Mr. Mandela’s successor as South African president, Thabo Mbeki, exhibited a pronounced and often toxic strain of anti-Western paranoia — a quality that resulted in, among other things, an unconscionable rejection of life-saving Western drug therapies at the height of the country’s AIDS epidemic.

On the other hand, Mr. Mandela was an extraordinarily tough act to follow — so it is likely that anyone who followed in his footsteps would have ranked as a disappointment.

As world leaders begin the trip to South Africa to pay their proper respects at his funeral, it is worth pausing to appreciate his virtues, not only as a political leader, but as a human being. If we all shared his capacity for forgiveness and peaceful co-existence, the world would be a much better place.

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“In his jailhouse memoirs, Mandela wrote that even after spending so many years in a Spartan cell on Robben Island – with one visitor a year and one letter every six months – he still had faith in human nature.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” he wrote in “Long Walk to Freedom.”

“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Nelson Mandela dead at 95

Slideshow: Nelson Mandela: A revolutionary’s life/

View images of civil rights leader Nelson Mandela, who went from anti-apartheid activist to prisoner to South Africa’s first black president.

By Tracy Connor, Staff Writer, NBC News

Nelson Mandela, the revered South African anti-apartheid icon who spent 27 years in prison, led his country to democracy and became its first black president, died Thursday at home. He was 95.

“He is now resting,” said South African President Jacob Zuma. “He is now at peace.”

“Our nation has lost his greatest son,” he continued. “Our people have lost their father.”

A state funeral will be held, and Zuma called for mourners to conduct themselves with “the dignity and respect” that Mandela personified.

“Wherever we are in the country, wherever we are in the world, let us reaffirm his vision of a society… in which none is exploited, oppressed or dispossessed by another,” he said as tributes began pouring in from across the world.

Though he was in power for only five years, Mandela was a figure of enormous moral influence the world over – a symbol of revolution, resistance and triumph over racial segregation.

He inspired a generation of activists, left celebrities and world leaders star-struck, won the Nobel Peace Prize and raised millions for humanitarian causes.

South Africa is still bedeviled by challenges, from class inequality to political corruption to AIDS. And with Mandela’s death, it has lost a beacon of optimism.

Feb. 1990: NBC’s Robin Lloyd reports on Nelson Mandela on the eve of his release from prison in 1990. Mandela’s name has become a rallying cry for the overthrow of apartheid, but no one but prison guards and visitors have actually seen him since he was jailed 27 years ago.

In his jailhouse memoirs, Mandela wrote that even after spending so many years in a Spartan cell on Robben Island – with one visitor a year and one letter every six months – he still had faith in human nature.

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” he wrote in “Long Walk to Freedom.”

“People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Mandela retired from public life in 2004 with the half-joking directive, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” and had largely stepped out of the spotlight, spending much of his time with family in his childhood village.

His health had been fragile in recent years. He had spent almost three months in a hospital in Pretoria after being admitted in June for a recurring lung infection. He was released on Sept. 1.

In his later years, Mandela was known to his countrymen simply as Madiba, the name of his tribe and a mark of great honor. But when he was born on July 18, 1918, he was named Rolihlahla, which translated roughly – and prophetically – to “troublemaker.”

Mandela was nine when his father died, and he was sent from his rural village to the provincial capital to be raised by a fellow chief. The first member of his family to get a formal education, he went to boarding school and then enrolled in South Africa’s elite Fort Hare University, where his activism unfurled with a student boycott.

As a young law scholar, he joined the resurgent African National Congress just a few years before the National Party – controlled by the Afrikaners, the descendants of Dutch and French settlers – came to power on a platform of apartheid, in which the government enforced racial segregation and stripped non-whites of economic and political power.

As an ANC leader, Mandela advocated peaceful resistance against government discrimination and oppression – until 1961, when he launched a military wing called Spear of the Nation and a campaign of sabotage.

April, 1994: Former political prisoner Nelson Mandela is on the verge of being elected South Africa’s first black president.

The next year, he was arrested and soon hit with treason charges. At the opening of his trial in 1964, he said his adoption of armed struggle was a last resort born of bloody crackdowns by the government.

“Fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation and fewer and few rights,” he said from the dock.

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

He was sentenced to life in prison and sent to Robben Island. As inmate No. 466/64, he slept on the floor of a six-foot-wide cell, did hard labor in a quarry, organized fellow prisoners – and earned a law degree by correspondence.

As the years passed, his incarceration drew ever more attention, with intensifying cries for his release as a global anti-apartheid movement gained traction. Songs were dedicated to him and 600 million people watched the Free Mandela concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1988.

In 1985, he turned down the government’s offer to free him if he renounced armed struggle against apartheid. It wasn’t until South African President P.W. Botha had a stroke and was replaced by F.W. de Klerk in 1989 that the stage was set for his release.

After a ban on the ANC was repealed, a whiter-haired Mandela walked out prison before a jubilant crowd and told a rally in Cape Town that the fight was far from over.

“Our struggle has reached a decisive moment,” he said. “We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait.”

Over the next two years, Mandela proved himself a formidable negotiator as he pushed South Africa toward its first multiracial elections amid tension and violence. He and de Klerk were honored with the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

When the elections were held in April 1994, the ex-prisoner became the next president and embarked on a mission of racial reconciliation, government rebuilding and economic rehabilitation.

Springbok captain Francois Pienaar receives the Rugby World Cup from South African President Nelson Mandela at Ellis Park in Johannesburg on June 24, 1995.

A year into his tenure, with racial tensions threatening to explode into civil war, Mandela orchestrated an iconic, unifying moment: He donned the green jersey of the Springboks rugby team – beloved by whites, despised by blacks – to present the World Cup trophy to the team captain while the stunned crowd erupted in cheers of “Nelson! Nelson!”

He chose to serve only one five-year term – during which he divorced his second wife, Winnie, a controversial activist, and married his third, Graca, the widow of the late president of Mozambique.

After leaving politics, he concentrated on his philanthropic foundation. He began speaking out on AIDS, which had ravaged his country and which some critics said he had not made a priority as president.

When he officially announced he was leaving public life in 2004, it signaled he was slowing down, but he still made his presence known. For his 89th birthday, he launched a “council of elders,” statesmen and women from around the world who would promote peace. For his 90th, he celebrated at a star-studded concert in London’s Hyde Park.

As he noted in 2003, “If there is anything that would kill me it is to wake up in the morning not knowing what to do.”

In April, de Klerk was asked on the BBC if he feared that Mandela’s eventual death would expose fissures in South Africa that his grandfatherly presence had kept knitted together.

De Klerk said that Madiba would be just as unifying a force in death.

“When Mandela goes, it will be a moment when all South Africans put away their political differences, take hands, and will together honor maybe the biggest South African that has ever lived,” he

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

“As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”

The tragic central reality of so much human conflict through history is its self-sustaining nature. Injustice breeds resentment. Resentment generates rage. Rage curdles into a lust for revenge. It takes uncommon courage to break this vicious cycle. The genius of Nelson Mandela was his immediate understanding that genuine freedom required not just the removal of the shackles that constrained him and his fellow blacks under apartheid. True liberation meant discarding the mental chains that tied them—and the rest of us—to the instantly gratifying but ultimately destructive pursuit of vengeance. But reason does not always bend to the will. The greatness of Mr. Mandela resided in his character: the extraordinary moral strength to subordinate the natural urge for revenge to the greater good of reconciliation. South Africa is a better nation because of this remarkable man’s leadership. The world is a better place because of his example.

We remember his life and legacy, reflect on his own his words, share the tributes of leaders around the globe and, finally, take a look at a South Africa that must go on without him.