My favorite fact about Nelson Mandela is that he invited one of his white jailers, who had helped imprison him for 27 years, to his inauguration as South Africa’s president. It was a sign of the magnanimity, warmth and absolute lack of vindictiveness that marked Mandela.
There have been many great dissidents and freedom-fighters, but few have made the transition well to national leader. The qualities that mark a rebel — raw courage and stubbornness, even unreasonableness — don’t tend to make a great president.
Mandela faced plenty of pressures to be petty, to humiliate those who had humiliated him and even murdered his friends, yet he somehow resisted them. He’s the biggest man I’ve ever seen.
More broadly, Mandela epitomized public service and sacrifice more than anyone of his generation. Here was a lawyer with a promising career who could have chosen to work within the system, and yet he tossed it aside to fight for all his country’s people.
When on trial and facing the death penalty, he was defiant as ever. And then during those 27 years in prison, he was repeatedly offered the chance to be released early. Indeed, the government pretty much begged him to accept a conditional release, because he was an embarrassment behind bars. Yet he refused to accept anything less than an absolutely unconditional release — and eventually he got it.
Putting his country first also meant family troubles, including his break with his wife, Winnie, after he was released. It meant standing up to those longtime allies of his who thought that he was acquiescing in racial and economic gulfs and giving away the store. And it meant taking just one term as president, to show that South Africa would be led by laws and not presidents-for-life. That set an example for governance that rippled across the region.
When experts debate why Africa faltered in the post-independence period, one common factor cited is poor governance and poor leadership (partly because of dismal education systems and tribal conflicts put in place by colonial authorities).
There were few shining examples of great leaders in Africa, outside of Botswana. Yet Mandela turned out to be as great as a president as he was as a freedom fighter, and his example was inspiring and contagious.
All across Africa and the world, people turned to Mandela as an inspiration of public service and leadership. He raised the bar, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that African leadership has been much better in the post-Mandela period.
There’s also a message for the rest of the world. When Mandela was behind bars and most needed help, much of the world was mute. Dick Cheney even voted against a 1986 House Resolution calling on South Africa to release Mandela.
That was shortsighted, and we are similarly shortsighted when we don’t speak up for dissidents in countries from China to Bahrain. Eventually freedom will prevail in Beijing and Bahrain as it does in South Africa.
Mandela’s contributions to black-white conciliation are well known, but what is perhaps less famous is his tireless work to fight AIDS, to bring peace to warring nations and to promote respect for LGBT rights. In a continent that has often been deeply repressive of gays and lesbians, Mandela was a strong advocate of equality and gay marriage, and it was because of his influence that South Africa became the fifth country in the world to legalize gay marriage. He was a leader not just for South Africa but for the world.
So, yes, a mighty figure may have died at the age of 95. But travel around Africa and the world, and you see his imprint, his legacy, his spirit.