Nelson Mandela’s death Thursday at age 95 has stirred international sorrow, with many commentators – even those who’ve never visited South Africa or fully understood his decades-long struggle to end apartheid – describing him as the world’s last great noble man. His words are quoted almost as if they were religious texts, even when he was calling for weapons for his cause and rejecting his country’s government, a legacy that at one time made him one of the world’s most controversial figures.
What accounts for the nearly universal outpouring of grief and adoration?
Very simply, Nelson Mandela’s perseverance transcended his battle against apartheid and the struggle of his times. His words on forgiveness, reconciliation and peace went beyond his country and spoke not only to the world’s struggles but also to a man’s everyday fight in his own life. His words, spelled out in hundreds of letters and scores of speeches, were as applicable to the lives of ordinary people as they were to the world’s greatest challenges.
Where bitterness might consume many who endured far less, Mandela called for forgiveness. He repeatedly stated his optimism that man would make the right choices. And from that came second chances: for South Africa, for reconciliation, for human capacity and even, in Mandela’s life, for love; he married his third wife, Graca Machel, when he was 80.
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The United States once considered Mandela a terrorist for undertaking a guerilla war against the South African government, but President Barack Obama said upon his passing that Mandela “belonged to the ages.” In reality, he was a part of the ages every day of his life.
A review of the thousands of letters, speeches and interviews he gave during his life, dating to 1951, capture Mandela’s evolution and vision – and makes clear why his words captivated and inspired the world so much that even an unsurprising death at an advanced age evoked a sadness worldwide, a singular loss of someone whose influence spanned generations.
Nearly two decades ago, Mandela contemplated death – and declared himself prepared. “Death is something inevitable,” he told an interviewer for the 1996 documentary “Mandela.” “When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.”
During his years in prison, communication was a major goal. He left messages for his fellow prisoners in tiny script on matchboxes around the lime quarry where he performed hard labor during much of his imprisonment. He wrote hundreds of letters, speaking without sentimentality about the emotional issues of life – not being able to go to his mother’s funeral in 1968 or that of his son shortly thereafter – with sadness but no bitterness.
“Difficulties break some men but make others,” he wrote his then-wife, Winnie Mandela, from the Robben Island prison in February 1975.
Upon his release, he explained one of the many lessons of imprisonment, which would contribute to his emergence as an international symbol of hope.
“It is never my custom to use words lightly. If 27 years in prison have done anything to us, it was to use the silence of solitude to make us understand how precious words are and how real speech is in its impact on the way people live and die,” he said in a speech in 2000 closing the 13th International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa.
He was constantly self-reflective, with a grander purpose in mind: to maintain his optimism and confidence in the human spirit, even in the face of the oppression that surrounded him. In his 1995 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” he said he would have been content to be a lawyer were it not for the struggle of his fellow Africans. But he also understood the path he’d set himself upon, contemplating death in a Pretoria courtroom in 1964 during the trial that would send him to jail until February 1990.
“I have fought against white domination and I have fought black domination,” he said at the trial. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die.”
Several times during his imprisonment, the government offered him deals to end his captivity. But as he said in 1985, in a letter to his daughter: “I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return.”
In April 1994, he became South Africa’s first democratically elected president, an office he held for just one term before stepping down, an oddity on a continent where rulers have a tendency to stay on well past their welcomes. Many asked Mandela when he took office whether he’d exact revenge on those who’d imprisoned him and abused his fellow supporters. He called such thinking a form of imprisonment itself, an obstacle to much-needed reconciliation.
“Today we no longer vow mutual destruction but solemnly acknowledge our interdependence as free and equal citizens of our common motherland. Today we reaffirm our solemn constitutional compact to live together on the basis of inequality and mutual respect,” Mandela explained in 1995 on Reconciliation Day, the annual public holiday on Dec. 16 that marks the end of apartheid. “Reconciliation, however, does not mean forgetting or trying to bury the pain of conflict. . . . Reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.”
How a nation treats its women and its most downtrodden was the ultimate measure of its success, he would say.
“For every woman and girl violently attacked, we reduce our humanity,” he told a crowd at a concert in March 2005. “For every woman forced into unprotected sex because men demand this, we destroy dignity and pride. Every woman who has to sell her life for sex we condemn to a lifetime in prison. For every moment we remain silent, we conspire against our women. For every woman infected by HIV, we destroy a generation.”
He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. In his acceptance he laid out his vision.
“Thus shall we live, because we will have created a society which recognizes that all people are born equal, with each entitled in equal measure to life, liberty, prosperity, human rights and good governance. Such a society should never allow again that there should be prisoners of conscience nor that any person’s human rights should be violated,” Mandela said. “Neither should it ever happen that once more the avenues to peaceful change are blocked by usurpers who seek to take power away from the people, in pursuit of their own ignoble purposes.”
In 2004, Mandela famously bade goodbye to public life, saying: “Don’t call me. I will call you.” And from then on, other nations’ revolutionaries spoke of their need to find their own Mandela, most recently in Egypt, where the Arab Spring flounders.
But such sentiments miss what Mandela spent all those decades saying.
The world is saved not through Mandela but by individuals striving to be better people. If a man from the village of Qunu whose first education was the tales of the tribesmen has the capacity to do it, Mandela would argue, so do the rest of us.
“Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished,” he wrote in “Long Walk to Freedom.”