As we mark his passing on Thursday, I will always remember Nelson Mandella for two things: transformation and forgiveness. The transformation refers to Mandella's journey from being a Communist terrorist to a champion of democracy and peace.
Oh, you didn't know that Mandella was a Communist? In the late 50's and early 60's he wrote and spoke about his admiration of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro--and hoped to model the African National Congress's overthrow of the Apartheid government in South Africa after their Communist revolution in Cuba. And as the leader of the "MK" (or "Spear of the Nation"), Mandella authorized the bombings of a number of South African civilian facilities--including a crowded train station in Johannesburg. It was for these bombings that Mandella was sentenced to life in prison.
But while spending time in the notorius Robben's Island prison, Nelson Mandella realized that fighting the violence of the white government against the majority blacks with more violence would not achieve his goal or freedom for all South Africans. Pressure from the rest of the world--along with economic sanctions--eventually brought a peaceful end to Apartheid rule--and won Mandella his freedom.
Following his election as the first black South African President, it would have been very easy for Mandella to exact a measure of "revenge" against the Afrikaaners who had engaged in the suppression of "his people" for so many decades. Mandella could have seized the assets of white South African businesses as "ill-gotten gains" or forced white farmers off their fertile lands to "redistribute more fairly" to Blacks. (Which was done in neighboring Zimbabwe--causing the complete destabilization of the country's economy) And it certainly would have been popular to take the former leaders who had imprisoned him for so long and to throw them into the same small cells in which he had been captive.
But Mandella didn't do any of that. He worked with the Afrikaaners to incorporate Blacks into the economy, into the schools and into the halls of government to share power. A process that still has a long way to go. And it is that forgiveness and tolerance that we should most respect in the man.
Nelson Mandella says that during his time in prison he found greatest inspiration from a poem by William Ernest Henley entitled Invictus--which is Latin for "not conquered". It's message could certainly apply to those of us in America today as well:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.