“His smile was like sunshine, but Nelson Mandela was made of steel,” wrote Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson of Mandela’s death. “It was his strength of character, repeatedly tested throughout his long and impossibly full life, that made him one of the towering political figures of our time. ‘Our nation has lost its greatest son,’ South African President Jacob Zuma said Thursday as he announced Mandela’s death at age 95. Zuma was being modest. Mandela belonged to the world.”
Robinson went on to note that Mandela was not always viewed so favorably. President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were “one-time detractors who considered the organization that Mandela headed, the African National Congress, a terrorist group trying to overthrow South Africa’s legitimate government.”
Imagine that, or remember. In retrospect, how mistaken they were, and yet it was a commonly held belief across this country and in many others.
The white-run apartheid government jailed Mandela in 1973. By the time of his release in 1990, he had gained international stature and began touring the world with his message of peaceful change in South Africa and a transition to a democratically elected government. In spite of five decades of brutal and repressive rule under the apartheid government, he resisted revenge and guided angry residents toward a peaceful transition.
He was elected president in 1994. For those of us who remember, the relatively peaceful transition was nothing short or astounding.
“The world remembers the great leader who acted without bitterness,” Robinson wrote. “But Mandela could play that role only because of his decades of implacable opposition to a system that he knew was evil. So we should remember not only the man who embraced his former enemies, but also the man who refused to be bowed by those enemies, who remained militant despite 27 years of imprisonment, who walked out of jail and into freedom with his head held high and his eyes toward the future.”
Another apt tribute of Mandela came from President Barack Obama, who wrote:
“At his trial in 1964, Nelson Mandela closed his statement from the dock saying, ‘I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I’ve 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 that I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’
“Nelson Mandela lived for that ideal and he made it real.
“He achieved more than could be expected of any man.
“Today he’s gone home and we’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages.
“Through his fierce dignity and unbending will to sacrifice his own freedom for the freedom of others, Madiba transformed South Africa and moved all of us. His journey from a prisoner to a president embodied the promise that human beings and countries can change for the better.
“His commitment to transfer power and reconcile with those who jailed him set an example that all humanity should aspire to, whether in the lives of nations or in our own personal lives. And the fact that he did it all with grace and good humor and an ability to acknowledge his own imperfections, only makes the man that much more remarkable. As he once said, ‘I'm not a saint unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.’
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life. My very first political action -- the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics was a protest against apartheid. I would study his words and his writings. The day he was released from prison it gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they're guided by their hopes and not by their fears.
“…We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again, so it falls to us as best we can to follow the example that he set, to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love, to never discount the difference that one person can make, to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice.
“For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived, a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice….”
Transcript courtesy of Federal News Service.