Recently, Nelson Mandela celebrated his 94th birthday. As the iconic leader of the African National Congress, his determination in the fight against apartheid inspired his followers to persevere until they had achieved victory. Today, millions around the world who are struggling for freedom are inspired anew by his example. But perhaps his greatest achievement may have been the spirit of reconciliation that he fostered after being elected President of South Africa.
Mandela became actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement and joined the African National Congress in 1942. For 20 years, he directed a campaign of defiance against the South African government and its racist policies. In 1994, Mandela was inaugurated as the country’s first black president.
For his activities opposing apartheid, he spent 27 years in prison, including 18 years at the notorious Robben Island facility. In No Future Without Forgiveness, Desmond Tutu wrote of that time, “Those twenty-seven years were the fires of the furnace that tempered his steel, that removed the dross. Perhaps without that suffering, he would have been less able to be as compassionate and magnanimous as he turned out to be. And that suffering on behalf of others gave him an authority and credibility that can be provided by nothing else in quite the same way.” His ability to forgive his tormentors was demonstrated during his inauguration when he invited his white jailer to attend as his honored guest. This attitude of forgiveness helped to transition the country peacefully to a democracy whose constitution protected the rights of all South Africans.
South Africa still has some distance to go to achieve full economic and political balance among its citizens. The first generation of South Africans who have grown up free of apartheid is now entering adulthood. The example set by Nelson Mandela will certainly serve as a powerful guide for how they will use their freedom to create their country’s future.