Nelson Mandela’s courage and tenacity in triumphing over South Africa’s oppressive apartheid regime made him a hero. But it was his forbearance and humility after that remarkable triumph that made him one of the towering figures of our time.
Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95 after a long illness, understood the strength of forgiveness and restraint.
After being imprisoned for 27 years for fighting South Africa’s minority rule, it would have been easy for Mandela to be bitter and vindictive and to ensure that his supporters reaped all the financial benefits of his rise to power. But Mandela knew no good would could from continued violence and resentment.
As South Africa’s first black president, he encouraged goodwill and respect among the races. He invited one of his jailers to his inauguration. He included opposition parties in his government.
He did this not simply out of goodwill. He also was a smart politician who knew such gestures would promote the cooperation needed to build a strong nation for all South Africans.
In his relatively short presidency — 1994 to 1999 — he established the groundwork for a democratic government.
Subsequent leaders have not possessed his vision or moral strength, and South Africa today has its share of problems. Yet it remains far more stable than most African nations.
Former President Bill Clinton last summer told the Agence France-Presse a revealing story similar to what he once told on a visit in Tampa.
Clinton asked Mandela how he felt when he was finally being led from the prison to freedom, whether he hated those who imprisoned him.
Mandela replied: “I felt hatred and fear, but I said to myself, ‘If you hate them when you get in that car you will still be their prisoner.’ I wanted to be free, and so I let it go.
“People can take everything from you. I lost my family, the chance to see my children grow up, the best years of my life. They can take everything except your mind and your heart. Those things I decided not to give away ...”
Nelson Mandela’s inspiring example of self-restraint and moral integrity should serve as an inspiration for us all.