Remembering Nelson Mandela

December 6, 2013 | By Patrick A. McLean

Today at Albion and across the country our flags fly at half staff to mark the passing of Nelson Mandela. It is a fitting tribute to a man who made it his life's work to fight for peace and justice in the face of often overwhelming opposition in his home country of South Africa.

As a young leader of the African National Congress, an organization whose mission it was to end the rule of the racially based, white South African regime, Nelson Mandela fought for the equal rights of black and colored South Africans. Because of his leadership role in the ANC, the racist regime not only sentenced him to life in prison but also "banned" him, forbidding his name being mentioned, forbidding even the existence of his picture. It was a hallmark of the regime—and an indication of its moral bankruptcy—that it sought to even rewrite the history books so that black leaders could not exist. But far from erasing Nelson Mandela from the minds of South Africans, his imprisonment only enhanced his popularity and the righteousness of his cause. His imprisonment spurred direct action not only in South Africa but around the world, resulting in a new model of social involvement as students across the U.S. compelled their colleges and universities to divest from financial holdings with companies doing business in South Africa, whose white rulers had, by then, made their country a pariah state in the international community.

As international sanctions brought the white regime to its knees economically, it spurred action within the ruling Nationalist Party. Under new leadership in the early 1990s, the government announced that Mandela would be released from prison. The announcement brought jubilation from black South Africans but fear from white South Africans, who worried that any easing of apartheid might result in mass violence directed at them. And one might have forgiven Mandela, after 27 years of often backbreaking imprisonment, had he emerged as a bitter man who incited his ANC colleagues to violent retribution. Instead he emerged with a message of peace, forgiveness and racial healing. Within a year of his release he entered into negotiations with the white government and in 1994 was overwhelmingly elected President of a new South Africa after the country's first free and fair elections. As president of the new South Africa, Mandela continued to preach a message of racial reconciliation. He initially established a government of national unity, including the former white president FW de Klerk as his deputy. He helped establish the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a panel designed to bring closure to the many horrible incidents of murder, torture and gross human rights violations that had occurred under white minority rule. This confessional commission was not designed to retaliate against the perpetrators of horrible crimes, but rather to bring out the truth for victims and their families and to bring closure to a painful chapter in South African history. He also famously cheered for the Springboks, South Africa's white rugby team and a longtime symbol of Afrikaner (white) pride, calling it South Africa's team and exhorting his countrymen of all races to rally behind the team. It was an important sign to white South Africans that their new black President intended to rule on behalf of everyone, not just those who shared his racial profile.

South Africa's transition to majority rule could easily have descended into violence, retribution and even civil war. It is largely testimony to the strength of Nelson Mandela's courageous leadership that a country so fractured could move relatively peacefully into a new age.

After he left the presidency in 1999 and oversaw a peaceful transition to a new South African president, Mandela continued to play a less formal role on the South African and the world stage, consistently advocating for peace, unity and for causes like an end to poverty.

With the death of Nelson Mandela, the world has lost a truly great man. We mourn his passing, but we celebrate the life of a world leader with few peers.

Patrick McLean is director of the Gerald R. Ford Institute for Leadership in Public Policy and Service at Albion College.