Every once in a very great while, we get these people who rise above the confines of self. Nelson Mandela, who died on Thursday at the age of 95, was one of those. He navigated his life by the polestar not of self, but of freedom and in so doing, became the founding father of a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all people are created equal.
It is not that he was a perfect man. “In real life,” he once wrote, “we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous.”
But if Mandela was heir to all those imperfections of humanity — and of course, he was — he was also able, when his country and the world needed him to — to make himself greater than the sum of his flaws.
If you doubt that, imagine for a moment a different scenario. Imagine a Nelson Mandela who came out of prison after 27 years — much of it spent at hard labor and in isolation upon an inhospitable rock called Robben Island — and seethed with fury. Imagine a Mandela who sought revenge against a white minority government that branded him a terrorist and stole so much of his life for the “crime” of wanting, and fighting, to be free. Imagine a Mandela who used the force of his legend and his moral authority to do what that government had long feared he would: issue a war cry, set black against white. The waters of the South Atlantic Ocean might still be running red.
Now, consider what actually did happen:
Mandela forgave. He forgave the government that segregated him to the margins of society and made him an outsider in his own country. He forgave the jailers who tried to break his body and spirit during his long incarceration. He forgave his country for hating him.
Not only that: When he completed his remarkable rise from South African “terrorist” under the apartheid regime to South African president in a new multiracial democracy, he made it a point to reach out and reassure nervous whites that they still had a place in the new nation now taking shape. And then there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Formed in 1995, it provided a forum for the airing and investigation of human rights abuses committed under apartheid — both by its defenders and those who fought against it. It was also tasked with making recommendations of amnesty for victimizers and reparations for their victims, and with constructing an authoritative and official record of what happened.