On 12 June 1964, Nelson Mandela, age 46, was sentenced to life for sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow South Africa’s apartheid government. On February 11, 1990, prisoner number 46664, who would not let despair dictate his soul, walked out from the Victor Verster Prison into the bright sunshine of freedom.
He had spent a total of 27 years behind bars.
The world has paused to remember this iconic figure who breathed his last at age 95 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela’s timeline is etched in the memory of multitudes but even those not aware of the milestones of his life saw in him a revolutionary and a visionary the likes of whom we are unlikely to see again.
Of all the traits that defined Nelson Mandela, perhaps the two most remarkable were his humility and his willingness to forgive.
“I am not a saint,” Mandela often told his admirers, “unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”
Here was a man who had attained the moral high ground through superhuman courage and patience in the face of evil, yet who could resist the seductive pull of arrogance.
He was aware of his flaws and frailties, some of which his countrymen were to witness during the five years (1994-1999) he was the President of South Africa, such as charges of cronyism and selling out the liberation struggle to white interests.
But Mandela’s rare gift was that he never lost sight of his goal: democracy, equality and the rule of law for blacks, whites, Afrikaners and every other race in his tormented country. He could do it because he had the humility to know that it was not about him but about South Africa and its people. The source of his humility sprang from a combination of high purpose, grace, strength of character, self-assurance and daring, a combination tragically absent in any of today’s leaders anywhere.
Mandela’s inclination for reconciliation over revenge marked him even more as the definitive moral leader of our time. Half-a-century of inhuman apartheid had stoked the flames of revenge among his dispossessed, nameless, faceless, vote-less people. A blood-bath between blacks and whites in South Africa seemed inevitable. But Mandela would have none of it. "Great anger and violence can never build a nation,” he declared. “We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors.”
This, from a man who was forced to toil day after day in a limestone quarry without sunglasses under a merciless sun that destroyed his tear ducts and, for years, robbed him even of his ability to weep!
Freed after 27 years, only a Mandela could say with conviction that he bore no ill will toward his white Afrikaner jailers.
Ever the humble man, Mandela pointed out during an interview that “I am not the only one who did not want revenge. Almost all my colleagues in prison did not want revenge, because there is no time to do anything else except to try and save your people.”
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (Madiba) went for the stars. Not for him petty fights and small dreams. “There is no passion to be found playing small,” he said, “in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.”
As viewers saw in the 2009 movie “Invictus,” he had the courage to surprise his adversaries with restraint and generosity.
And that made all the difference.