Mr. Mandela’s quest for freedom took him from the court of tribal royalty to the liberation underground to a prison rock quarry to the presidential suite of Africa’s richest country. And then, when his first term of office was up, unlike so many of the successful revolutionaries he regarded as kindred spirits, he declined a second term and cheerfully handed over power to an elected successor, the country still gnawed by crime, poverty, corruption and disease but a democracy, respected in the world and remarkably at peace.Leaders cannot afford to hate.
The question most often asked about Mr. Mandela was how, after whites had systematically humiliated his people, tortured and murdered many of his friends, and cast him into prison for 27 years, he could be so evidently free of spite.
The government he formed when he finally won the chance was an improbable fusion of races and beliefs, including many of his former oppressors. When he became president, he invited one of his white wardens to the inauguration. Mr. Mandela overcame a personal mistrust bordering on loathing to share both power and a Nobel Peace Prize with the white president who preceded him, F. W. de Klerk.
And as president, from 1994 to 1999, he devoted much energy to moderating the bitterness of his black electorate and to reassuring whites with fears of vengeance.
The explanation for his absence of rancor, at least in part, is that Mr. Mandela was that rarity among revolutionaries and moral dissidents: a capable statesman, comfortable with compromise and impatient with the doctrinaire.
When the question was put to Mr. Mandela in an interview for this obituary in 2007 — after such barbarous torment, how do you keep hatred in check? — his answer was almost dismissive: Hating clouds the mind. It gets in the way of strategy. Leaders cannot afford to hate.
There's wisdom there.
Apartheid was a contentious issue, believe it or not, in the US when I was a high school, college and law student. Not that anyone I knew was for it, mind you, but to what extent we had a moral obligation to disassociate from the South African government, corporations that invested in South Africa under the Botha regime--and what to make of Mandela, the man at the core of the resistance movement. Some viewed him with disdain--Ronald Reagan, and Dick Cheney come to mind. Others idolized him, also an error; he was a great man, but a man whose road to greatness was a long and arduous one, forged in the fire of systemic injustice and imprisonment. Not every moment shone; how could it?
But he lived long enough to see the judgment of history on him. History has, and will continue to, vindicate him. Not very moment, not every decision. But a giant passed today. We are the richer for his life, the poorer for his departure.
(Edited because my use of an archaic meaning of the word "fulsome" created the impression that I thought the obituaries were fawning. I blame writing a Victorian novel for this. Thanks to a diligent reader for the catch.)