A generation from now when parents, teachers, politicians and others seek to describe moral courage and distinguished leadership, there will be one person from their lifetimes whose name will rise to their lips: Nelson Mandela.
There are very few true global heroes, Mandela was one.
Though millions across the globe have been awed and inspired by a man who chose reconciliation over revenge, moral leadership over personal gain, and justice over tyranny, Mandela was first and foremost a South African, whose dedication to his country has only been matched by his countryman’s reverence for and dedication to him.
In 1990, upon his release after 27 years of imprisonment, Mandela gave a speech in Cape Town demonstrating the qualities that would cement his reputation. He concluded his speech with the same words that he spoke at his trial in 1964:
“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.”
Mandela thankfully lived, leading his country in one of the 20th century’s most profound political transformations. In the process he has become an icon to much of the world for his statesmanship, his dignity, his tolerance and ability to forgive, and his commitment to non-violent political change.
His status as a global hero is all the more remarkable in our media-obsessed age, where leaders are subject to intense scrutiny of their personal lives, not just their political careers. No statesman or woman today has enjoyed the near uniformity of approval that was bestowed on Mandela.
Despite this seemingly heavy burden of respect, Mandela wore the label of hero lightly. He took the limelight when it was necessary, but was happiest when stepping back to let others take the lead. He often described himself as just “a country boy.”
Those who worked with him spoke of his ability to identify what was needed and to pursue it with single-minded determination. In his post-presidential years, he was a tireless advocate for children’s education, devoting much of his time to raising funds for new schools and education programs throughout South Africa and the world.
The most important legacy of Nelson Mandela, in his life as well as in his death, may well be his remarkable ability to bring parties of all persuasions together, ultimately transcending the deepest divisions, suspicions and even hatred — a skill that only grows in importance in our world.
His cohort of political activists, many of whom were defendants with him at the time of the Rivonia Trial in 1964, represented a multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-religious panoply of South Africa: black, white, Asian, Xhosa, Zulu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian. Following his release from jail, this cohort was transformed into a remarkable coalition that included representatives of the government that imprisoned him — a coalition that brought a post-apartheid, democratic South Africa into being.
Mandela’s ability to work across political divides in South Africa would have warranted him a special place in history by itself. Yet it was his extraordinary ability to inspire and connect with people that vaulted him into the rarest pantheon of global statesmen and women.
One of his many acts of political genius and moral leadership was portrayed in the movie “Invictus.” When racial divisions still threatened the dream of a united South Africa, Mandela donned the captain’s jersey of the South Africa’s newly minted world champion Springboks rugby team, and walked onto the field post-game — amidst thousands of white fans, many waving the nationalist flag of 1928 — to present the trophy to the team. With this simple act, he managed to win over millions of skeptical white South Africans to the cause of a new, multiracial and democratic South Africa.
Even in these past months of his declining health, he brought unity amid diversity in his nation. Across South Africa, from the Johannesburg to Mandela’s ancestral home community of Qunu in the Eastern Cape, people have publicly honored the man many call “Madiba” (his ancestral clan name), or simply “Tata” or father. In the all-white Afrikaner community of Orania in South Africa’s Northern Cape province (home until her death of Betsie Verwoed, widow the former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoed, who was architect of the apartheid system), the community began praying for Mandela daily this past summer.
The collective reverence that has gripped most of South Africa these past months, and indeed much of the world, comes at a time when tremendous political divisions threaten to divide the country. (Less than 12 months ago, the cover of The Economist magazine featured South Africa with the cautionary heading “Cry, the beloved country,” raising questions about South Africa’s political and economic leadership).
These challenges serve as a reminder that the South African national journey will be an ongoing project as it seeks to fulfill the vision that Mandela so tirelessly pursued.
The highest honor we can pay this extraordinary man, whether we are citizens of South Africa, the United States or elsewhere in our world, is to renew a commitment to his vision of democratic and free societies in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.
Let Mandela’s dream live on.
Shirley Moulder and Derek Brown, based in Johannesburg and Charlottesville, respectively, are board members of the Peace Appeal Foundation, founded in 1999 with the support of five Nobel Peace laureates.