Remembering a hero

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If you switched on a television the morning of Feb. 11, 1990, you likely witnessed a sight both completely commonplace and utterly extraordinary.

Materializing on a road, coming into view surrounded by a horde of people, was a slender, dignified black gentleman, holding the hand of his wife, waving at bystanders and, occasionally, hoisting a fist in a symbol of victory. He was walking, nothing more, nothing less.

But what a momentous walk it was. After 27 years, a period that stretched from John F. Kennedy to George H.W. Bush, from “Lawrence of Arabia” to “Do the Right Thing” and Mantovani to MTV, Nelson Mandela was being released from prison. He was confined for over a quarter-century for his resistance to South Africa’s remorseless apartheid regime, which systematically oppressed the country’s blacks and subjected them to humiliations not unlike those experienced by American blacks in the Jim Crow South. That he was able to endure long-term confinement for a cause that was undeniably just put him in the same rarefied company as Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., two other great 20th-century figures of redoubtable integrity and moral rectitude.

Though we have become cynical about heroes, Nelson Mandela was surely one.

Shortly after the announcement of Mandela’s death Thursday at age 95 after months of failing health, President Barack Obama remarked “today he’s gone home and we’ve lost one of the most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth.” Then, borrowing a phrase Edwin M. Stanton is said to have uttered after Abraham Lincoln breathed his last, Obama said, “He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages.”

Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 came just three months after the Berlin Wall crumbled and totalitarian regimes were being dismantled across Eastern Europe. The Soviet Union followed suit the following year. Though some suggested we were on the cusp of history’s “end” and a new conflict-free age, that turned out not to be the case in Europe, nor in the South Africa into which Mandela emerged. The divided nation was threatened by figures on its extremes – white supremacists at one end wishing to maintain the apartheid regime by any means necessary, and, on the other, by long-repressed and radicalized blacks wanting revenge, not reconciliation. Mandela was able to help calm these roiled waters, counseling patience and tolerance. As Keith B. Richburg stated in a Washington Post appreciation Friday, “Miraculously, Mandela found a way to thread the needle. He did it through words and simple gestures, and through the force of his own outsize personality. Each time the country seemed inescapably hurtling toward a violent cataclysm, Mandela almost single-handedly found a way to pull it back.”

When he was almost 76, an age at which most people would be looking to kick back and take stock, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president and continued to gracefully shepherd South Africa through years of tumult and transition. His tenure was not flawless – he came under criticism for his slow response to the AIDS epidemic that devastated South Africa and the rest of the continent, and many observers believed that the nuts and bolts of administration were not among his strong suits. It goes to show that even the most extraordinary among us are human, armed with strengths and weaknesses.

Of the thousands of words that have poured forth about Nelson Mandela in the last three days, perhaps it’s best to leave the last ones to the man himself:

“Death is inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace. I believe I have made that effort and that is, therefore, why I will sleep for the eternity.”

Rest well.

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