Nelson Mandela proved to be one of the great statesmen of the 20th century, a true revolutionary who spent much of his adult life in prison before leading a nation to redemption. Much of the revolutionaries of the 20th century were criminal thugs who simply murdered their own while threatening the security of others. You know the names, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Mussolini, Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, and Arafat. I will admit I feared Mandela would prove no different when he left prison and that South Africa would become another Zimbabwe; Mandela, another Mugabe. But, history proved me wrong as Mandela did the unusual. He led a successful revolution without bloodshed once out of prison and at the peak of his power, he simply left the Presidency and trusted others to continue the path he began.
Mandela set an example that others rarely followed. Compare Mandela to Robert Mugabe, the present dictator of Zimbabwe, who has managed to take a nation rich with resources and talented people and turned it into an impoverish hellhole. South African has much left to accomplish and much of what Mandela has created is still in doubt but then at a similar crucial point in our history; our own young Republic survived what was considered a problematic adventure. The change from our confederation to our present Constitution came at a time when there was serious doubt that America would survive.
To build a great nation depends upon institutions that allow individuals to succeed and prosper. The civil society often determines the success of the government and in a successful society; you must have strong institutions to go with a civility that allow different groups to co-exist and various fractions to come to agreement. Nelson Mandela gave the rest of South Africa an example on civility. Here was a man who was tortured and imprisoned but when he left prison, he not only negotiated the end of Apartheid, but he chose to forgive those who imprisoned him. Mandela’s genius was that he did not allow those who imprisoned him to escape responsibility but he also ensured the minority white that he would not seek revenge but redemption.
There are politicians and then there are politicians who become statesmen when the occasion demands it. Abraham Lincoln provided crucial leadership during the Civil War. Churchill rallied Great Britain in some of darkest moments of World War II. Reagan did the same during the Cold War. Mandela showed his own brand of statesmanship when he recreated a multiracial democracy in a land wrecked by Apartheid. Maybe the most impressive thing was leaving office after just one term and at the peak of his power. Mandela could have been president for life but instead he returned to private life as his life work was accomplished; a free South Africa. It is now up to his descendants to follow through on his own work and continue the path of reconciliation and redemption.