The world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, a towering figure of racial reconciliation and democratic ideals who earned the love and respect from all sides in his nation’s bitter divisions, and helped to bring them together as one South African people.
At the age of 76, Mr. Mandela was well past his biblical three score years and ten when his 50-year struggle for justice in South Africa culminated in his election as the nation’s first black president. That was in 1994, a year after he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with then-president J.W. de Klerk for overcoming the South African system of racial apartheid. He served as president until 1999, then retired to a role as his nation’s elder statesman.
During the years of struggle he helped lead the African National Congress in its opposition to apartheid and its demand for black rights. For his efforts, the young lawyer was tried for treason in 1956, harassed, jailed, and eventually convicted of attempting to overthrow the government by force in 1964. He spent 18 years in a small cell on Robben Island under painfully harsh conditions before being transferred to another prison. He was freed in 1990.
While he was in prison his ANC associates led a successful worldwide effort to condemn apartheid and apply painful economic sanctions on South Africa. In an effort to end his nation’s isolation, in 1990 President de Klerk lifted the ban on the ANC, freed Mr. Mandela, and entered into negotiations on a transfer of power to a democratically elected government with full black participation.
Following his triumphant election as president in 1994, Mr. Mandela devoted his energies to bringing South Africans together. He reached an early agreement with South Africa’s leading corporations on their relations with the new government, giving them confidence to keep investing in the nation.
If he felt at all bitter about the old government’s oppression of blacks and its treatment of him, he kept it to himself as he tried to build bridges between the races and promote domestic harmony.
His skill at making unifying gestures that played down racial antagonisms was on prominent display when at a crowded sports stadium before television cameras in 1995 he wore the green and yellow jersey of the national rugby team, the Springboks. He came to present them, as champions, with the World Rugby Cup, which they won with only one black player on the squad. Handing the trophy to team captain Francois Pienaar, a white Afrikaner, Mr. Mandela said, “Thank you very much for what you have done for our country.”
Nelson Mandela’s inclusive brand of leadership is in sadly short supply across the globe. On December 5, the world lost a great leader who was selflessly devoted to his nation, its people, and peace.