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By Fareed Zakaria
When Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, I remember being struck by how old fashioned he seemed. He spoke with the language, cadence and manner of figures from the 1940s and 1950s. As someone who grew up in India, he reminded me of the videos I had seen of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru and the other great national leaders from the post-colonial world who had led their countries to freedom. He had the same formal way of speaking and dressing, the same dignity of bearing, the same sense of history.
And Mandela really was a throwback to an older time – of great leaders, who, through courage and sheer willpower, changed the course of history. Twenty-seven years in prison had kept intact his manners but also his morals.
His most important act was, of course, of forgiveness. He didn't just talk about reconciliation. He took painful actions to make it real. He learned the language of his oppressors and studied their culture. Even after the election of a new government and with a new constitution, Mandela made sure that the old Afrikaans establishment – the civil service, the army, even the hated police – was largely kept in place.
The white business class was encouraged to participate actively in the new South Africa. Compare that to so many transitions, for example Iraq, where the new regime come in and fired, or jailed, or killed, everyone from the old and a 10- year civil war followed. Instead of vengeance Mandela sought truth and reconciliation.
He was not a saint, but rather a political genius. He did what he did because it saved his country. When he came to power, many wondered how he would steer the new country's foreign policy. After all, the African National Congress, which he headed, had been supported by the revolutionaries of the world – Gadhafi, Arafat, Castro. But Mandela knew what was in his country’s best interests. His steered it in a pro-Western, pro-democratic, pro-market direction. And yet, he kept faith with his old comrades, honoring them, never forgetting their support when he and his movement were in the wilderness.
His final act of greatness was leaving office. Very few black African leaders had ever left office voluntarily in 1999 when Nelson Mandela did after just one term, because he wanted to make sure that South African democracy did not descend into a cult of personality or dynasty. He was, in this sense, South Africa's George Washington. As much as one man can shape a country's future, Nelson Mandela did it for South Africa. And in doing so, he also shaped the conscience of the entire world.