Just five years ago, Nelson Mandela was on this county’s terrorist watch list. In 1991, the South African wrote a book with Fidel Castro.
With such credentials it is remarkable that now, days after his death at age 95, Americans join the world in mourning the loss of a great statesman.
Mandela will be remembered at funeral celebrations as a leader who won enormous power and wielded it gently. But a big source of his greatness was his refusal to unclench his fists and back down in the face of injustice.
Remember that he was imprisoned in his native country for sabotage and treason. When he was sentenced to life in prison in 1962, he was the leader of a paramilitary group called Spear of the Nation.
The apartheid government had disarmed him and stripped him of power, or so it seemed. Outside his cell, South Africa remained a powder keg, with the white minority increasingly afraid of the back majority it ruthlessly repressed. It was hard to see a peaceful outcome.
Meanwhile, Mandela grew too influential for walls to contain him. His integrity was obvious to everyone who met with him. The jailers who saw it every day called him Mr. Mandela.
The government became afraid of what he might say next and offered to release him if he would renounce violence. Mandela refused. He also said he would not go into exile. If he were released, he promised to go home and pick up right where he had left off.
When he was finally released in 1990, the Chicago Sun-Times wrote of a fear widely held: “If the transition from oppression to equality can be accomplished without major bloodshed, it will be a miracle.”
Anything could have happened. Mandela might have stirred up the crowds and started a racial war. He might have been assassinated. He might have proved too old, soft and out of touch to be effective. He might have just gone home.
Instead, he performed a miracle. In his first public speech, he spoke of liberty, not revenge: “We call on our white compatriots to join us in shaping a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you, too.”
Mandela evolved from his revolutionary socialism and came to appreciate the importance of freedom, including a free economy.
Things turned out quite differently for whites in neighboring Zimbabwe. Wealth was confiscated. If you want to do business there and you’re not a Zimbabwean, you have to share half your investment with an indigenous citizen.
“Mandela has gone a bit too far in doing good to the nonblack communities, really in some cases at the expense” of blacks, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe said in a recent TV documentary. “That’s being too saintly, too good, too much of a saint.”
Mugabe is a petty, selfish politician who has made a mess of his country.
Unlike Mugabe, Mandela believed that true freedom requires a person to respect and enhance the freedom of others. He was no saint but did stand ready to fight for that ideal and sacrifice everything for it.
Such a combination of courage and integrity on the world stage is rare. That’s why Mandela will be missed by everyone except the bullies and tyrants.