Nelson Mandela


The death of Nelson Mandela this past week ends the life of one of the handful of the most remarkable and admirable political figures of the last millennium. My wife Joyce and I were quite moved by our visit to Robbin Island, just outside Cape Town, South Africa, in 2008, where Mandela had spent most of his 27 years of imprisonment by the Apartheid government. He survived exceptionally harsh conditions, and he lived the prime of his life in prison. Yet he found a way to have a greater influence on his society from prison than almost everyone has on their societies as free people.

As I reflect on his life and death, I believe that he shows all of us that a society can make a relatively peaceful transition from a harsh, authoritarian government to a functioning democracy. He led the effort to create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the primary goal of which was to create a peaceful means of understanding and coming to grips with the harshness and violence of the Apartheid era. The Commission had three goals:

  • To be a forum in which the truth could be learned and presented to the South African people;
  • To provide a mechanism for determining who should be granted amnesty for acts of violence committed under the Apartheid regimes; and
  • Most important of all, to heal the wounds of an awful time in South African history, so that the society could move forward without a new civil war or, worse yet, retaliatory violence by the black African leadership that took power.

Not surprisingly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could not be completely successful in accomplishing these exceptionally ambitious goals, but it was far more successful than anyone concerned about the future of South Africa would have anticipated.

If we compare South Africa’s transition to a more democratic society with our own or with what happened after World War II in Europe, it is not surprising that South Africa’s progress toward a unified, peaceful society is uneven and, at times, frustrating.

After the American Civil War, our society reverted to a violent, Apartheid-like society in the Deep South that really did not get substantially unwound for over 100 years. The Nuremberg Trials resulted in a clear set of judgments about those who led the Germans down the horrible path that led to World War II. However, one of the consequences of the disruption the war caused was the creation of two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, which took control of different parts of the areas the Germans conquered. The Soviets exacted retribution and created a new totalitarian regime that last 46 years after the end of World War II. By these standards, South Africa has a long way to go before its transition from Apartheid to democracy can be evaluated.

The one unfortunate universal problem with great leaders like Nelson Mandela is that, by definition, their capabilities are so unique that, inevitably, those who succeed them fall far short of what they might have been able to do if they had lived and stayed in power. Mandela’s three successors have not been outstanding leaders. The United States never produced another Abraham Lincoln. While there were a number of great leaders in the United States and Western Europe, the Soviet Union did not produce a visionary leader who was willing to take bold steps until Mikael Gorbachev took power over 40 years after World War II.

Our country is now 148 years removed from our Civil War. Some people think we are more politically divided than ever, and that we are locking into concrete the “Red” and “Blue” states. However noisy and unpleasant our conflicts are today, we are a far less violent country than we were 20, 40, 60, or 136 years ago (when the U.S. government finally withdrew occupation troops from the South). South Africa will probably muddle along and, over time, become a less violent country with less intense memories of the horrors of what it experienced in the decades during which it was subjected to the Apartheid regime.

We do not know what course the South African society will take. However, that it has a reasonable chance of being a well-functioning society at some time in the future is the result of Nelson Mandela’s life and actions. As he passes on, all of us owe him our deepest gratitude for showing us what one man can accomplish in making a transition from dictatorship to democracy more workable. We were deprived of that example in our country when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, but we can learn and grow from what Mandela accomplished. Because his work was so visible and so well-documented, we will benefit from it as long as we have societies that strive to learn from the best practices of the past.

I feel blessed to have lived in a time in which Nelson Mandela was among us.