This week the world lost a great man. There are many people that make a difference through their leadership, but there are very few that actually change the world they live in for the better in a way that will affect generations. Nelson Mandela was that kind of man. He chose reconciliation over retribution and restoration rather than revenge. He set a standard of peacemaking that will be hard to follow and probably prevented untold bloodshed during his time as the President of South Africa.
No man is perfect and Nelson Mandela had many detractors during his lifetime. I will leave it to others to spill their ink in pointing out those imperfections and mistakes. Instead, I will choose to focus on the legacy of peace and reconciliation he left behind for so many others to emulate.
I had just graduated from college and gotten married when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 after spending nearly thirty years of his life in captivity. While I was growing up and getting a great education, he spent years breaking rocks and just about losing his eyesight due to the nearly blinding glare from the limestone he was working on. He was born in a nation that had promoted state sanctioned racial discrimination as a part of everyday life and he would spend three decades of his life behind bars for his leadership of the opposition to this Apartheid policy.
As a teenager, I first learned about Mandela as the Free Mandela movement began to grow and many universities banded together to divest from investments in South Africa. Never did I expect him to be freed in my lifetime and then to be democratically elected as South Africa’s first black president. These events were taking place at the same time as the iron curtain was coming down and so much was changing in our world. Anything seemed possible in those days.
There is so much to admire about Nelson Mandela, but there were three things in particular that stood out to me. In one of his most important decisions as a new leader, he determined to serve only one term as the new president of South Africa. That decision sent a strong message to his fellow South Africans and leaders all over Africa. It was possible to be democratically elected and then to step down and allow others to lead rather than developing a lifelong dictatorship as had happened in so many other African nations where leaders were initially elected democratically.
Even more incredibly, Mandela personally met with senior figures of the apartheid regime, including Hendrik Verwoerd’s widow Betsie Schoombie and the lawyer Percy Yutar; emphasizing personal forgiveness and reconciliation, he announced that “courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace.” He encouraged black South Africans to get behind the previously hated national rugby team, the Springboks, as South Africa hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup. After the Springboks won an epic final over New Zealand, Mandela presented the trophy to Captain Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner, wearing a Springbok shirt with Pienaar’s own number 6 on the back. This was widely seen as a major step in the reconciliation of white and black South Africans; as de Klerk (former President) later put it, “Mandela won the hearts of millions of white rugby fans.”
In an act of great courage, Mandela oversaw the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate crimes committed under apartheid by both the government and the ANC, appointing Desmond Tutu as its chair. To prevent the creation of martyrs, the Commission granted individual amnesties in exchange for testimony of crimes committed during the apartheid era. Dedicated in February 1996, it held two years of hearings detailing rapes, torture, bombings, and assassinations, before issuing its final report in October 1998. Mandela praised the Commission’s work, stating that it “had helped us move away from the past to concentrate on the present and the future”.
At this time of year when we focus on the birth of the Prince of Peace, Mandela is a reminder that pursuing peace is possible in spite of all the reasons to pursue revenge and recrimination. He did not have to choose the path that he did and I can only imagine that the circumstances he had to endure encouraged him to go in a different direction. Despite that potential temptation, he chose the path of reconciliation and demonstrated what it meant to forgive in such a powerful way that it will impact generations to come.