Mandela endured hardships that seem almost unimaginable. He was imprisoned for 27 years and yet when finally freed, he emerged with a higher purpose than hating others. He hated the system of apartheid and by his endurance helped to bring down the ugly racial barriers in his country.
Mandela knew first-hand about both non-violence and violence. In the beginning, he tried non-violence, for two decades leading a campaign against the oppressive white South African government. But then he took up arms to fight the regime and as a consequence was given a sentence of life imprisonment for a plot to overthrow the government.
He was held for 18 years in the maximum security prison of Robben Island off Cape Town, then moved to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland where most of the time he had to endure solitary confinement. Yet after three years there, he turned down an offer of freedom conditioned on his renouncing armed struggle. He spent more time in a third prison, Victor Verster, as his fame grew. And four years after his release in 1990, he was elected president of South Africa.
Then came what could qualify as the hardest part: trying to create a democracy from numerous racial and cultural groups. Mandela helped to steer the country from apartheid and minority rule, a Herculean task. But he knew that national reconciliation was the key to everything. He knew that the country’s white population needed assurance that they would not only be protected but also represented in what he called “the Rainbow Nation.”
Leading by example, Mandela made certain that his cabinet reflected the rainbow with representatives from the previously ruling party as well as his own African National Congress. He met personally with top leaders of the apartheid regime, and in the face of criticism from black militants, urged forgiveness and reconciliation. “Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace,” he said on one occasion.
He had learned of courage and forgiveness, the one necessary for the other. “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography. “People must learn to hate, and if they learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for loves comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”
That explains why Mandela rose from prison to power and led in the reconciliation of the people of his country. He was indeed a worthy recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded jointly to him and then-President Frederik Willem De Klerk of South Africa in 1993.
The world urgently needs leaders like Nelson Mandela who made it a better place by his commitment to justice and mercy, trusting in the better nature of people, even his enemies, and having the courage to forgive them.