As the world mourns the death of Nelson Mandela, his courage, dedication and persistence are being extolled. Undoubtedly, he was one of the great figures of the 20th century, a man who fought for decades for equality and justice for the native people of Africa against a racist and often-brutal European colonial government. But his greatness will be remembered not just for his dogged determination and his willingness to die for his cause. Mandela might be best remembered for his humility and his willingness to forgive the oppressors of his people.
After being elected president of South Africa in the nation's first multi-racial election, Mandela established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission — a panel that heard sworn testimony about the travesties of the apartheid regime. The deal was simple: Confess and be forgiven. Witnesses told horrific stories, but there was no retribution, no revenge, no violent outrage. The panel sought the truth of what had happened in secret in the decades before the cruel apartheid system was dismantled. Only after facing the ugly truth could the nation offer forgiveness for what had gone before.
South Africa is far from a idyllic country. Huge disparities in wealth remain. Millions of poor black citizens have little hope of upward mobility. Crime and violence persist. But South Africa is a multi-racial democracy that has put its apartheid past behind it, and it owes its success largely to Mandela.
Mandela is sometimes compared to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Both men were inspired by Gandhi. Both condemned violence. Both were maligned as communists or worse. Mandela spent 29 years in prison and was admired for his willingness to forgive his oppressors as well as those of his own race who opposed his policies. He was elected president of his nation. King, tragically, was cut down by a sniper's bullet just as his civil rights campaign was achieving success.
On MLK Day each year, speakers extol King's non-violence and proclaim the wisdom and compassion of his "I Have a Dream" speech. Some other speakers will remind audiences that King was more than a quotable preacher of love and equality; he was also an advocate of wealth redistribution and labor union power and a harsh critic of the Vietnam War. Had he lived, some say, he would have grown more radical in his politics and more critical of an American system too skewed in favor of the wealthy and the politically powerful.
But Mandela's example suggests a different perspective for an aging King. As he grew older, Mandela forgave those who oppressed his people and imprisoned him. Mandela became more conciliatory, more forgiving, more willing to work within the political system to achieve his goals. As they grow older, most people mellow. Young firebrands often become more understanding and conciliatory.
One can never know, but it seems reasonable that King, too, might have aged into a more forgiving, less radical elder statesman role, as Mandela. King, too, might have led a movement to uncover the secret horrors of segregation and to allow forgiveness for all the wrongs committed over the decades. King might have lived to become the universally admired champion of justice and forgiveness in his old age, he might have even won the presidency, had an assassin not killed him before his work was completed.