December 9th, 2013
12:52 PM ET

How Mandela shaped the conscience of the world

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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.

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Topics: Africa

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. WERTWERT32452345

    Quite right, Fareed. Yes, Nelson Mandela was truly from the old school just as Mohatma Ghandi and Nehru were. In fact, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill disliked Ghandi with a burning passion just as our own Pres. Ronald Reagan and British PM Margaret Thatcher hated Nelson Mandela. As long as there are right-wing fanatics, there will always be ignorance, hatred and violence.

    December 9, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
  2. Allan Kinsman

    It is not in a great man's character to pursue power but to point a direction. Any great man knows the example must be set first so that others may follow. Mandela eventually will not be remembered as a leader but as a great teacher and thus left to the ages as our guide. His character reminds us we all can outlive our narrow thinking, our prejudices, ourselves to accomplish something beyond what we thought we could. We can change because right before our eyes we saw a tranformation take place. We saw a man have nothing attain everything and let go of it and there is no better or more real example of a right action.

    December 10, 2013 at 1:18 am |
  3. j. von hettlingen

    While the apartheid regime was still in power in South Africa, the Brits and the Americans dubbed Mandela as terrorist. Today he is an icon. Most heads of state travel to South Africa to attend his funeral, which is a manifest of hypocrisy. This gathering plays into Jacob Zuma's hands, whose party is facing enormous challenges and next year it runs for elections.

    December 10, 2013 at 8:29 am |
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well said, j. von hettlingen. Like I said before, both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher hated Nelson Mandela with a burning passion just as Winston Churchill hated both Vladimir Lenin of Russia and Mahatma Ghandi of India for the same reasons. Yet these right-wingers enjoyed massive political popularity and are now venerated as heroes.

      December 10, 2013 at 10:29 am |
  4. hvchronic

    That's nice. Mandela was a good egg, and our president does know how to deliver a well-crafted sentence. Still, one can't help feeling that this is still a white man's world, black president or not, Apartheid or not. Here's to continued hope and change, so that one day we'll all really be free and more or less equal:

    December 12, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
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