When Nelson Mandela was asked if he was bitter about the personal price he paid fighting for freedom and an end to apartheid in South Africa — 27 years in prison — he replied thoughtfully, "Well, it is futile to be bitter.
"The best thing you can do is to give to the community and in a small way to the world, rather than brood on the opportunities you have lost," he observed in an interview with American opinion writers visiting his Johannesburg home in 2000.
After 31/2 centuries of white rule in South Africa, more than 30 years of exile for leadersof his beloved African National Congress and a lifetime of struggle against racism and injustice, he and his followers had, he said, "no time for revenge."
When Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95, it was that indomitable human spirit, courageous leadership and extraordinary heroism that still took our breath away, leaving people the world over stunned, saddened and mourning his passing.
For those lucky enough to have known him, those who met him in passing and those who never had the honor, this loss seems personal as well as global. In a very real sense, it is. In fighting racism, Mandela transcended race and made followers of us all. The former South African president who had so championed tolerance, equality and liberation for his people was a symbol of freedom, and the world seems diminished without him.
A lover of English literature and self-confessed "Anglophile," Mandela's death brings the words of Wordsworth to mind: "There hath pass'd away a glory from the earth."
His steadfast allegiance to the path of justice, equality and human dignity inspired people everywhere from every background, age, creed and color. That included a young Barack Obama, who joined his first political protests in the movement against apartheid. My daughter Mary, then 13, made me take a lengthy tribute she had written to Mandela along with me to Africa when I visited his home with a group of U.S. journalists in 2000. After the session, I sheepishly brought it forward, and Mandela graciously signed the document.
It is a tribute to Mandela that the mourners who gathered immediately outside his house after he passed — and who mourn him around the globe — were also of every background, age, creed and color.
While he was the central figure in the struggle against oppression and white minority rule in South Africa, Mandela, with typical humility, steadfastly refused to take personal credit for so much of that struggle. True enough. He was right that it took a movement that involved millions of others to eventually topple apartheid.
But it is also true that if you asked South Africans themselves, many would say that if Mandela could forgive his enemies and reconcile with them after the 27 years they kept him behind bars, they could forswear revenge as well.
"No," he once said. "That is a mistake that has been made right round the country and the world, the thinking that what has happened is the achievement of one man. We are essentially a collective people, in which we discuss our problems as a collective and make decisions."
But he also acknowledged that as president of the ANC and president of the country, he was "the mouthpiece for those decisions," even when he disagreed with some of them. Few would dispute the courage he brought to his leadership, and Mandela reveled in taking the path that, as he put it, "confounded the prophets of doom, which had predicted that there would never be changes in this country without this country being engulfed in rivers of blood."
The challenge now is for the world to remember and learn from his legacy — to try to live up to the greatness he was and the example he set — and to pay it forward.
- Storer H. Rowley is director of media relations at Northwestern University.