Who better to define the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela than the man himself? A warrior for equality, yet a man of peace. A prisoner for 27 years whose spirit was never, ever shackled and whose compassion continually took flight. A simple man of deep and enduring complexity. His words carried as much weight as his actions.
He had vision:
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”
This was not the South African society into which Mr. Mandela was born in 1918. To say it was a divided country is an insulting understatement. Its black-majority population existed almost exclusively under the boot heel of a minority of Europeans. The oppression of apartheid dogged blacks from cradle to grave. Mr. Mandela grew into a leader who, decades later, unified a nation — one side resentful, another, ready to claim their rightful place. But he cut his teeth as a leader as a young lawyer who bridged the destructive divisions within the Zulu nation, caught between rivalries of the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party. His embrace of the perceived enemy was the only way to move forward.
He was militant:
“Nonviolence is a good policy when the conditions permit.”
In 1961, 69 liberation-movement demonstrators, rallying peacefully, were slaughtered by police in Sharpville township. Mandela, then head of the ANC, pivoted, jettisoning nonviolence for armed revolt. The ANC planted landmines and bombed electrical stations. As an older man he said nonviolence was a strategy — and had become ineffective. At the time, however, he found guidance in Che Guevara’s Guerrilla Warfare.
He did not forsake friends:
“Communists have always played an active role in the fight by colonial countries for their freedom, because the short-term objects of Communism would always correspond with the long-term objects of freedom movements.”
Mr. Mandela’s refusal to spurn Fidel Castro outraged many Cuban exiles, freedom seekers who, in turn, refused to welcome another one to Miami. Understandably, it was a case of “the friend of my enemy is my enemy.” Castro, however, lent his support to the early days of the anti-apartheid movement, when much of the world was not paying attention. Mr. Mandela never forgot this, but he also compared his alliances to Winston Churchill’s strategic bond with Stalin to rebuff Adolf Hitler.
He was human:
“I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”
Mr. Mandela had to wrangle with what so many “ordinary” men are familiar with — a troublesome ex-wife and quarreling kids.
“For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
At 44, he was sentenced to life in prison for sabotage and conspiracy. During his 27 years on Robben Island, Mr. Mandela renounced violence and bitterness and never indulged in hatred. When he became president of South Africa at 75, he invited his white prison warden and guards to the inauguration.
He was a realist:
“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”
Madiba’s climb is over, after forging a wide path for seekers of freedom around the world.