Hunter Johnson, Commentary Editor
“Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people.”
The man who said these words did, indeed, sacrifice much for the good of his people. That man, Nelson Mandela, died just five days ago, on Dec. 5. Through his efforts to bring South Africa into a post-apartheid era, Mandela has risen to the level of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as a model of the peaceful revolutionary.
Mandela’s journey from being a second-class citizen to the president of his country was no walk in the park. Living in apartheid South Africa, where blacks were considered inferior to the minority white population and were often treated more harshly by the government, Mandela joined the African National Congress (ANC) and devoted himself to reversing the segregation and racism of his homeland.
He was not always the peaceful leader the world knew in the 1990s, however. When the ANC was banned from South Africa in 1960, he supported the establishment of a militant group within the organization. In 1964, Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life in prison for their actions within this group.
While he obviously did not spend the rest of his life in jail, his imprisonment did last for 27 years. That time would have been more than enough to break the spirit of most men, but Mandela was not your average man. He remained a powerful figure in the anti-apartheid movement and his popularity only grew while he was in prison. People from across the globe rallied to Mandela’s cause and lobbied the South African government to release him.
Facing increased pressure from both internal and external parties, the government finally acquiesced in 1990 and Mandela was released. He wasted no time challenging his people to seize their freedom – this time, without the use of force. He negotiated personally with the government and ushered in the first truly democratic elections in his nation’s history. Mandela was elected president in 1994 and apartheid became history.
Mandela serves as an inspiration to us all for the dramatic change he instigated in South Africa, but it is important to remember that part of what makes him a worthwhile role model is that he was not a perfect person. Like all of us, he had some serious flaws.
The militant group that he helped to establish essentially engaged in terrorist acts against the state. Furthermore, while in prison, Mandela refused to renounce that violence in exchange for an earlier release.
Once he was out of prison, however, he did not attempt to change South Africa by leading a bloody revolution. Instead of advocating more bombings and killings, he peacefully rallied the nation to the cause of freedom. He brought an end to a racist regime and, in lieu of harsh retribution against white citizens, chose a path of reconciliation and cooperation between the races.
Such an about-face is difficult to truly achieve, yet Mandela succeeded to an incredible degree. The man who had once advocated terrorism in his home country became a peaceful leader who transformed his entire nation. South Africa was once a nation shunned by most of the world for its system of apartheid. Now it is a beacon of hope to Africa and to the world, showing that a post-racist society is possible – even where it seems most unlikely. Mandela lit that beacon through his own personal struggles and sacrifices. It would serve us well to follow in his light.