The death Thursday of South African leader Nelson Mandela marked the end of his life at 95, but not the end of his impact on the people of South Africa, Africa and the world.
How far his country had to come in terms of justice and isolation, from the beginning of his career in the 1950s until his inauguration as South Africa’s first black president in 1994, is truly hard to imagine. Think of America’s pre-civil rights Deep South, with its racist rules enshrined in law and enforced strictly, but in the face of South Africa’s roughly four-to-one black majority.
The fact that Mr. Mandela, from a noble rural African family and educated to the level of lawyer, was the key inspirational figure in blacks’ drive to freedom was an incredible piece of luck for both white and black South Africans.
There was violence, primarily white-on-black violence which then provoked black-on-white violence, despite a Gandhian philosophic core of the blacks’ approach to the struggle, and Mr. Mandela was prominent in the direction of the African National Congress’ armed Spear of the Nation militia, even from prison.
But what stands out as Mr. Mandela’s signature characteristic was his belief in the need for forgiveness to achieve his goal of a democratic, multiracial South Africa. That was remarkable in someone who was imprisoned for 27 years, 18 of those spent breaking rocks on an island penal colony.
The United States, as well as most white South Africans, needed Nelson Mandela’s forgiveness also, to proceed beyond America’s tardy retreat from support of the white minority apartheid regime in Pretoria. The United States finally got it, and the impression Mr. Mandela’s example made on America’s first black president is clear to see.
It is appropriate for Barack Obama to go to South Africa for the funeral of one of the greatest persons of our time.
Americans will learn more about South Africa in coming days. Many of its problems continue to await resolution, including achieving a more equitable division of wealth, getting further past ethnic differences, and developing more leaders like Mr. Mandela. He leaves South Africans a potentially invaluable point of reference if they can ask themselves, when faced by difficult issues, what Nelson Mandela would have done.
His saga is ended and he can rest in peace, but the lessons he taught all of the world will live on through history as truly exemplary.