None of us can name a single world-famous political figure who has, at least since the days of Mahatma Gandhi, enjoyed the affection and admiration accorded Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95.
Although he spent 27 years of his life imprisoned by South Africa’s white minority government and was viewed by his political enemies as the epitome of evil, a communist sympathizer and a terrorist, Mandela patiently but doggedly pursued the cause of freedom for his nation’s black majority.
He paid a terrible personal price, yet his vision never faltered, and thus today he is remembered as one of the genuine political giants of his time.
“In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant,” Mandela recalled in 1994, four years after he gained his freedom. “I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonored those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy.” And that’s exactly what he did.
Greg Frye, who covered Mandela’s release from prison for The Associated Press, wrote: “It would be impossible to overstate the electric sense of anticipation that coursed through South Africa as Mandela’s release grew imminent … South Africans, black and white, knew their country was about to undergo seismic change, yet no one knew where it would lead.”
Apartheid, the particularly abhorrent South African brand of racial segregation practiced by the white minority that had been in power since colonial days, had long suppressed the nation’s blacks. It took someone with the unremitting resolve and fortitude of Mandela to steer his country in a new direction and back into international respectability.
Fortunately, he was strongly backed by international support, including economic boycotts, for his cause. And, having won the battle, he was elected president and became South Africa’s undisputed moral, spiritual and political leader.
Mandela was also a gentleman, and he remained his nation’s favorite son without ever resorting to political bombast or to the pursuit of personal gain.
Unfortunately, his eldest grandson, Mandla Mendela, began very publicly feuding with others in Mandela’s family even as the death watch was underway, but that won’t diminish the late leader’s reputation.
Last year, when it was believed he was terminally ill, Mandela’s health became an international issue. Journalists from all over the world poured into Pretoria, the South African capital, and in some cases that created considerable hostility on the part of the South African people.
But most South Africans recognized that the intense press coverage at that time was actually a tribute to their hero. And gradually, hostility toward the news media diminished as the people braced to accept what was believed to be Mandela’s imminent death.
“The media are here to support us,” said a 19-year-old student. “They have come from overseas to cry with us and support us in this difficult moment.”
The press coverage right now, and at his funeral 10 days hence, will surely exceed that of a year ago. And the public’s assessment of Mandela will continue to rival that of any person in human history.
Here in the United States, upon learning of his death, President Obama said, “The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they are guided by their hopes instead of their fears.” He also described Mandela as “profoundly good” and said he “no longer belongs to us, he belongs to the ages.”
Most other nations can only wish they had political figures equally deserving of such sincere reverence.MORE IN Commentary
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