The power of forgiveness. The value of reconciliation and the willingness to accept and use authority with grace are Nelson Mandela’s greatest legacy. It was the antithesis of revenge, however much revenge seemed a natural response. It made Mandela a transformational leader, a moral force greater than himself.
We know there are a rare few who come along and bend history. And then there are those whose very example and gravitas cause a crack, and things are never the same.
Mandela, born in 1918, began to attend African National Congress meetings while in university and became active with its youth league until the ANC was banned in 1961. He then went underground, but was arrested in 1963 and sentenced to life the following year. He would remain in prison for 27 years, contract tuberculosis and suffer the indignities of a prisoner of conscience. Over time, he redefined the role of a political prisoner.
The early 1980s marked the beginning of a global “Release Nelson Mandela” movement, but it was not until 1990 that he was freed just after South African President FW de Klerk legalized the ANC. Together, Mandela and de Klerk received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. In 1994, Mandela became the first elected president of a democratic South Africa.
He internalized the virtue of humility and managed the politically unthinkable, voluntarily serving only one term. He sought justice for the victims of apartheid by establishing a truth commission, not tribunals. It crystallized the practice of reconciliation.
In 1999, Nelson Mandela made a three-day visit to the Puget Sound region with his third wife, Graça Machel. They met with local schoolchildren, Rotary clubs, a fundraising dinner, Seattle University, the University of Washington and the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation. Mandela observed that Seattle was one of the first U.S. cities to join the boycott against South Africa and the “release Mandela” campaign in the early 1980s. (There’s something to be said about being on the right side of history.)
During his visit to South Africa, President Obama compared Mandela to George Washington, two ordinary souls who did extraordinary things; men who didn’t covet authority and exemplified the limits of power by stepping aside and allowing other leaders to emerge.
“What Nelson Mandela stood for is that the well-being of the country is more important than the interests of any one person,” Obama said. “George Washington is admired because after two terms he said enough, I’m going back to being a citizen. There were no term limits, but he said ‘I’m a citizen. I served my time. And it’s time for the next person, because that’s what democracy is about.’”
It’s a poorer world without Nelson Mandela.