Like a great mountain towering over a valley, forever hidden by dense clouds, the invisible symbol of Nelson Mandela towered over South Africa during the 28 years that he spent behind prison walls. Those of us who lived there did not see photographs of him; we did not know what he looked like after his arrest in 1962 but we knew that he was always there, the symbol of a people fighting for freedom. We knew, too, that freedom would rise from the blood of racial warfare. Today, in ironic counterpoint to the years of imprisonment, Mandela, who now has one of the most familiar faces on the planet, is once again invisible – behind hospital walls this time. All his compatriots – black, white, it makes no difference – are praying that the country will continue on the road he set out. The bloodshed was avoided then.
Many leaders have suffered for their people, but few have won the admiration of the whole world the way Mandela did. His birthday – on Thursday – has been celebrated as International Mandela Day since 2010. What made him stand out? The quick answer is that he sacrificed his freedom for his people’s struggle against a harsh regime that imposed racial segregation. But many, many others sacrificed themselves for the same struggle, often paying with their lives. What Mandela achieved was to avert his country’s course from conflict and racial warfare. He managed to persuade the leaders of the frightened white minority to hand over power to the majority, and he prevented the majority from turning to vengeance. It was a most peaceful, successful and unexpected change of regime.
Mandela did not achieve this on his own. It was most significant that the minority regime’s leadership had passed to the hands of F.W. de Klerk, who understood that sticking to apartheid would lead to war and who decided to release all the imprisoned leaders of the black nationalist movement, including Mandela in 1990. Mandela had a credible and courageous partner with whom to negotiate the dismantling of apartheid and the establishment of a country which today has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world.
Mandela’s greatness lies in something that is very simple and very human, but at the same time is almost unheard of in politics and international relations. He held the moral high ground; he had the power, he had the opportunity to establish the new state on vengeance for the countless crimes of racial segregation, yet he held out his hand to all the country’s people. And they gratefully accepted the opportunity to achieve national reconciliation and avoid mayhem. This is what the world honors in the person of a man who, as he turned 95 on Thursday, is waging the last battle of his life. We recognize the majesty of mercy, reconciliation and love of the kind that changes the course of history.