Nelson Mandela was a master of forgiveness.
South Africa’s first black president spent nearly a third of his life as a prisoner of apartheid, yet he sought to win over its defeated guardians in a relatively peaceful transition of power that inspired the world.
As head of state, the former boxer, lawyer and inmate lunched with the prosecutor who argued successfully for his incarceration. He sang the apartheid-era Afrikaans anthem at his inauguration and traveled hundreds of miles to have tea with the widow of the prime minister in power at the time he was sent to prison.
It was this generosity of spirit that made Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, a global symbol of sacrifice and reconciliation in a world often jarred by conflict and division.
Mandela’s stature as a fighter against apartheid — the system of white racist rule he called evil — and a seeker of peace with his enemies was on a par with that of other men he admired: American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. and Indian independence leader Mohandas K. Gandhi, both of whom were assassinated while actively engaged in their callings.
Mandela’s death deprived the world of one of one of the great figures of modern history and set the stage for days of mourning and reflection about a colossus of the 20th century who projected astonishing grace, resolve and good humor.
Dressed in black, South African President Jacob Zuma made the announcement on television. He said Mandela died “peacefully,” surrounded by family, at around 8:50 p.m.
“We’ve lost our greatest son. Our nation has lost its greatest son. Our people have lost a father,” Zuma said. “Although we knew that this day would come, nothing can diminish our sense of a profound and enduring loss.”
At times, Mandela embraced his iconic status, appearing before a rapturous crowd in London’s Wembley Stadium soon after his 1990 release from prison. Sometimes, he sought to downplay it, uneasy about the perils of being put on a pedestal. In an unpublished manuscript, written while in prison, Mandela acknowledged that leaders of the anti-apartheid movement dominated the spotlight but said they were “only part of the story,” and every activist was “like a brick which makes up our organization.”
He pondered the cost to his family of his dedication to the fight against the racist system of government that jailed him for 27 years and refused him permission to attend the funeral of his mother and of a son who was killed in a car crash. In court, he described himself as “the loneliest man” during his mid-1990s divorce from Winnie Mandela. As president, he could not forge lasting solutions to poverty, unemployment and other social ills that still plague today’s South Africa, which has struggled to live up to its rosy depiction as the “Rainbow Nation.”
He secured near-mythical status in his country and beyond. Last year, the South African central bank released new bank notes showing his face, a robust, smiling image of a man who was meticulous about his appearance and routinely exercised while in prison. South Africa erected statues of him and named buildings and other places after him. He shared the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk, the country’s last white president. He was the subject of books, films and songs and a magnet for celebrities.
In 2010, Mandela waved to the crowd at the Soccer City stadium at the closing ceremony of the World Cup, whose staging in South Africa allowed the country, and the continent, to shine internationally. It was the last public appearance for the former president and prisoner, who smiled broadly and was bundled up against the cold.
One of the most memorable of his gestures toward racial harmony was the day in 1995 when he strode onto the field before the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg, and then again after the game, when he congratulated the home team for its victory over a tough New Zealand team. Mandela was wearing South African colors and the overwhelmingly white crowd of 63,000 was on its feet, chanting “Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!”
It was typical of Mandela to march headlong into a bastion of white Afrikanerdom — in this case the temple of South African rugby — and make its followers feel they belonged in the new South Africa.
The moment was portrayed in “Invictus,” Clint Eastwood’s movie telling the story of South Africa’s transformation through the prism of sport.
It was a moment half a century in the making. In the 1950s, Mandela sought universal rights through peaceful means but was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964 for leading a campaign of sabotage against the government. The speech he gave during that trial outlined his vision and resolve.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people,” Mandela said. “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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 which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He was confined to the harsh Robben Island prison near Cape Town for most of his time behind bars, then moved to jails on the mainland. It was forbidden to quote him or publish his photo, yet he and other jailed members of his banned African National Congress were able to smuggle out messages of guidance to the anti-apartheid movement, and in the final stages of his confinement, he negotiated secretly with the apartheid leaders who recognized change was inevitable.
Thousands died, or were tortured or imprisoned in the decades-long struggle against apartheid, which deprived the black majority of the vote, the right to choose where to live and travel, and other basic freedoms.
So when inmate No. 46664 went free after 27 years, walking hand-in-hand with his then wife, Winnie, out of a prison on the South African mainland, people worldwide rejoiced. Mandela raised his right fist in triumph, and in his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” he would write: “As I finally walked through those gates ... I felt — even at the age of seventy-one — that my life was beginning anew.”
Nelson Mandela was a master of forgiveness.
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