What made Nelson Mandela the most famous and revered leader worldwide, and perhaps the most respected leader in history was his unshakable commitment to human rights and dignity. He inspired his nation as a political prisoner for 27 years under the apartheid white minority regime of South Africa and he stood by his principles, beliefs and commitments to democracy and racial freedom despite the offers of freedom if he compromised and betrayed his cause.
He refused at first to renounce armed struggle as a legitimate right against the oppression of the regime—until they agreed to renounce it also. He was called a terrorist, not a freedom fighter. He choose to remain behind bars and suffer deprivations and humiliations with stoic virtue until the racist apartheid government recognized that only he could tame the rampaging civil unrest. The protest movement led by his African National Congress (ANC) could not be stopped or defeated despite mass murders, assassinations, and unspeakable cruelty to its members and activists by the police and military.
He never waived in his unshakable belief that there would be freedom. World sympathy and support was with him. The South African apartheid government, civil society and sports organizations were banned and isolated worldwide. It was a great shame to be a white South African who did not support Mandela and the ANC and their desire for freedom and democracy. But those white South African people who did support him were very brave indeed. And there were many.
The most famous, difficult and wise change of his policy was to renounce violence in favor of negotiations that would lead to a recognition of his political movement and party, the ANC and free elections. That was his strongest card and he played it well.
He negotiated as a statesman and astute politician while still a prisoner.
He promised the minority government that despite the denial of almost every human right to his people, he would respect their human rights. Despite their unspeakable atrocities, many murders and cruelty, there would be no retaliation, no bloodbath, no vendettas or revenge killings. His firm commitment was not to exchange one bloody torturing regime for another led by him; that he denounced. His hope was to make peace and unite blacks and whites in a single nation for the future—The Rainbow Nation he dreamed of with human rights respected for all and by all.
His calm reasoning, congenial attitude, total lack of fear and unshakable integrity won over the white minority leaders. They believe him and were convinced that they could trust him to fulfill that promise and secure their future if he was ever elected.
On February 2, 1990, at the opening of parliament in Pretoria, President F.W. de Klerk announced the un-banning of all political parties including the ANC and seven days later, on the 9th February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked to freedom to a tumultuous welcome and worldwide acclaim.
He then, with others, negotiated the transition to national elections and told his supporters to throw their weapons into the sea. There was consternation at first but they revered him as their leader that they obeyed. Not all welcomed this change but it was the turning point on the road to democratic elections.
In 1991, he was elected president of the ANC and with 17 other political parties, participated in forging a draft constitution to end apartheid and open the way to national elections. His dream was now a reality.
In 1994, he glacially agreed to share the Nobel Peace Prize with his once deadly foe F.W. de Klerk, for ending apartheid. The ANC won and Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president. The military and police generals covered in medals and ribbons that had condemned him as a terrorist and hounded and killed his followers were there, ironically to shake his hand and pledge allegiance.
The monumental task to unite the people and fight poverty began. Despite racial tension, he worked at it for six years and then at the end of his term to the surprise of all, he stepped down. He became a global icon for the defense of human rights, dignity and racial equality. Despite his advanced age, he toured the world bringing peace and hope to millions who are suffering from human rights violations and oppression.
South Africa is far from healed. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) brought closure for some. If the killers and torturers on both sides confessed their crimes in public, they would not be punished. It’s not near over.
Progress has been made but poverty and inequality has not greatly changed yet there is a nation at peace and a long way yet to go for the rainbow nation that Nelson Mandela did most to bring about—an impossible dream made real.