Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, was more than a revered, transformational figure for South Africans. He became a pivotal figure in world history — and won the Nobel Peace Prize — by leading the movement to end white minority rule in his country and becoming its first black president.
He was also an important influence on the man who would make history thousands of miles away by becoming the first black president of the United States. Barack Obama, the son of a Kenyan father, has cited Mandela as a personal inspiration and the struggle against apartheid as one reason he went into politics. Obama’s first speech was in college at an anti-apartheid rally.
Despite serving 27 years in prison under apartheid, Mandela exuded a saintly aura of nobility and forgiveness. While many political movements are built around a charismatic leader, Mandela didn’t court the spotlight. In prison, he spent much of his time writing letters that had to pass through censors, carefully building relationships and laying the groundwork for overthrowing South Africa’s white minority rule.
From prison, he served as symbol for the country’s oppression. Finally, pressure exerted by economic sanctions and civil strife led to his release in 1990. He worked with the white president, F.W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid and hold democratic elections.
Mandela won the presidency — and formed a Government of National Unity with de Klerk as his deputy. As the father of a new South Africa, Mandela probably could have been president for life. Instead, like George Washington, he declined. He served five years, then retired to fight poverty and AIDS through his charitable foundation.
Mandela was able to accomplish what many at the time thought impossible: He led his country — once blighted with the worst sort of racial discrimination — in a peaceful transition to democracy. Then he worked with his former oppressors to create the new South Africa. Unlike in other countries where the multitude rose violently to take power, the feared retaliatory bloodbath never happened, thanks in large part to Mandela’s quiet leadership and insistence that the races must co-exist in peace.
One only has to look at the recent tumult surrounding other nations’ tentative steps toward democracy to comprehend just how extraordinary was Mandela’s feat. He much deserved the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize.
Mandela was more than a great African leader. As President Obama put it, Mandela was “a hero for all the world.”