At the time of this writing, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, lies in a Pretoria, South Africa, hospital. The 94-year-old father of the new South Africa -- where he served as president from 1994 to 1999, after serving 27 years in prison for fighting apartheid -- is gravely ill. Mandela’s name can be placed alongside Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. All changed their countries and the world for the better. Mandela is the only one who will not die by an assassin’s hand. Interestingly enough, Gandhi was the only one of the three not to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, though nominated five times, a decision the Nobel committee has admitted to regretting.
They called Gandhi “Bapu,” meaning Father of a Nation. King, who led our nation through a period of tremendous social change, is honored by a national holiday and Mandela is lovingly called “Madiba,” an honorific of his Xhosa tribe. They all accomplished their tremendous feats using nonviolent disobedience. They aimed to change the hearts of their oppressors, and that they did in India, America and South Africa.
Mandela could have come out of prison full of hate after South African President F.W. de Klerk released him in 1990, but by winning the first post-apartheid election in 1994, Mandela fought just as hard for real reconciliation as he did against apartheid. That’s why South Africa has been successful where other transitions on the African continent have not.
Now, South Africans face another transition: how to carry on without their visionary leader, whose moral character kept the government in check even though he has not been president in more than a decade. His shadow is still there.
Will the South Africans continue down the path Mandela has chartered? We think they will, but there are troubling signs within Mandela’s family. Like the King children, Mandela’s family is jostling for rights to his legacy. No worry. Like Gandhi and King, Mandela’s legacy belongs to his country and the world, whether his family realizes that yet or not.