Nelson Mandela turned 90 years old on Friday. That he has lived this long is remarkable in that nearly one-third of life was spent incarcerated, most of that time under brutal conditions. But that he turned 90 as one of the world's most admired citizens is an astonishing testament to the power of moral courage and forgiveness.
In 1994, Mandela became South Africa's first black and first democratically elected president. Yet even those historic garments seem too small for his shoulders. Though a politician, he is seen as something larger, a secular saint whose value and legacy transcend legislation.
This isn't what the South African government had in mind in 1964 when Mandela was convicted of treason. He opposed a government based on apartheid, an instrument of hate that made South Africa the most systematically racist country in history.
Mandela was given a life sentence, meant to remove him from view. Instead, he became the most famous political prisoner in the world.
By the 1980s, a face that had last been seen in a courtroom in 1964 emblazoned T-shirts and posters around the world. In 1988 in London, a concert for his 70th birthday was watched on television by close to a billion people in more than 60 countries.
By then, there was a growing recognition in the South African government that the future of the nation was in the hands of the aging prisoner who'd earned the admiration of not only his fellow black prisoners but his white jailers as well. They understood that the salvation of South Africa depended upon the release of the man accused of seeking to destroy it. So on Feb. 11, 1990, as the world watched, Mandela left prison, carrying on 71-year-old shoulders the responsibility of saving a tortured nation.
No greed, no revenge
Had he been a selfish man consumed with greed, or a hate-filled man motivated by revenge, South Africa would have been like Rwanda and the former states of Yugoslavia, countries torn apart by ethnic civil wars.
Mandela emerged from prison unbowed, a warrior still in possession of his dignity and grace, rather than the fire-breathing demagogue he'd been caricatured as. He proved himself to be a pragmatic statesman devoted to building a multiracial democracy.
In the tradition of nonviolence, Mandela understood there was no place for humiliation or revenge. So he included his persecutors in his government, invited his jailer to his inauguration, created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that allowed South Africans to talk about their country's painful past without retribution and he even had tea with the widow of the man known as the architect of apartheid.
Still too much hatred
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote, “Mandela has certainly got the greatest moral stature of any political leader of our time.”
Last Saturday, in a short address in Soweto, Mandela said, “And if a 90-year-old may offer some unsolicited advice on this occasion, it would be that you, irrespective of your age, should place human solidarity, the concern for the other, at the center of the values by which you live. There is still too much discord, hatred, division, conflict and violence in our world here at the beginning of the 21st century. A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of.”