- But Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, was more than just a symbol. His name was a clarion call for people across the globe in their struggles against oppression. He personified the triumph of nearly unimaginable perseverance over nearly unimaginable tribulation:
After 27 years in prison Mandela was released in 1990. Immediately, at the age of 71, he began negotiating a peaceful transition to a multi-racial democracy in South Africa, where racial policies had provoked generations of violence and hate.
For the rest of his life, the world’s “most famous prisoner” refused to show bitterness to his enemies, preferring instead to seek reconciliation. His actions were, and continue to be, a model for peaceful conflict resolution worldwide. When he shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 â€” with his former jailer, South African President F.W. De Klerk â€” Mandela discreetly declined comment, realizing the wrong words might unravel the fragile negotiations to dismantle apartheid.
Fittingly, he was elected the first black president of South Africa in 1994 in the country’s first multiracial election. His top priority was to oversee the creation of a new constitution, guaranteeing equality for all. He also brought together disparate elements of the country, black and white, to address the grinding poverty and homelessness that afflicted his country.
Despite his enormous impact, Mandela was a self-deprecating man who would have rejected attempts to portray him as martyr or saint. Modest to a fault, he often disarmed opponents and amused friends with his puckish sense of humor. While in prison, he played soccer with other inmates and his entire life he remained a proud and passionate soccer fan. He helped South Africa obtain the 2010 World Cup and was photographed beaming at the Cup finale.
He knew personal tragedy beyond but during imprisonment- his mother and eldest son both died while he was in prison and he was not permitted to attend their funerals. His well-known second wife, married to him during his imprisonment, was involved in a sordid public scandal after their divorce. In 2005, his only surviving son died of AIDS, a disease that ravaged South Africa, and one which Mandela had assumed a public role in fighting.
If one person could be called the conscience of the world, it would be Nelson Mandela. Nadine Gordimer, the South African writer and Nobel laureate for literature, once said of her fellow countryman, “He is at the epicenter of our time, ours in South Africa, and yours, wherever you are.”
The best way for us to truly honor his life, his suffering, and his memory is to uphold the values he embodied and fight the injustices he forced the world to confront. His inspiration is universal, his legacy timeless.