A giant of the ages is gone.
Nelson Mandela’s Thursday death at age 95 has left South Africa in grief and the global community bereft of one of its most inspirational figures.
In a televised address after the man known as Madiba — a title of honor — died at 8:50 p.m. local time in Johannesburg, South African President Jacob Zuma spoke of the leader’s passing as “the moment of our greatest sorrow.”
“His humility, his compassion and his humanity earned him our love,” Zuma said.
And the world’s acclaim.
Born in 1918 in a tiny South African village, Mandela would profoundly change his nation and indeed the arc of history, despite spending nearly three decades of his adult life in prison. He negotiated the end of the racist apartheid system during his confinement and became the nation’s first black president on May 10, 1994, four years after walking out of prison while the world cheered his release.
Mandela as a young lawyer undermined apartheid with an initial embrace of nonviolent acts of defiance and later sabotage and armed resistance. In 1964, he and seven other leaders of the African National Congress were sentenced to life terms for political offenses.
Despite being subjected to harsh and belittling treatment, Mandela earned a bachelor of law degree from a University of London correspondence program during his imprisonment. He organized a “university” with other prisoners ordered into hard labor at a lime quarry; the men would work in a circle, sharing expertise in politics, history, economics and philosophy. He convinced prison wardens to let him cultivate vegetable gardens.
“I am fundamentally an optimist,” he wrote in “Long Walk to Freedom,” the memoir he began in prison. “Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward.”
Once freed, Mandela remained an uncompromising peacemaker. He urged international powers to maintain pressure on South Africa for equality among races and constitutional reform. At the same time, he worked with President F.W. de Klerk to set the stage for the nation’s first multiracial elections. The black resistance leader and the white president shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
As president, Mandela’s focus on reconciliation prevented South Africa from falling into widespread violence and civil war. He capitalized on the nation’s passion for sports, convincing black South Africans to rally around the once-despised Springbok rugby squad. He pushed for jobs, better housing and health care for citizens in a nation that still struggles with poverty and its ills.
After leaving politics in 1999, Mandela continued to advocate for peace and justice worldwide.
At once fierce and humble, wise and bold, Mandela ranks among the towering figures of world history. He is mourned at the end of a long life, in part because of the void he leaves behind.
Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.