Nelson Mandela transformed South Africa in part because he was first able to transform himself. And therein, of course, lies perhaps the greatest lesson of his remarkable life, and the hardest one to learn.
Because he was somehow able to find in his years of imprisonment a form of personal liberation that freed him from anger, resentment and revenge, he emerged from prison with the only vision that could possibly transform South Africa from a racist police state into a relatively peaceful and truly democratic, multi-ethnic nation.
Within the discovery of that internal freedom was clearly the seed of a nation’s freedom and the extraordinary future almost no one predicted for a place seemingly poised on the verge of a bloody convulsion.
How South Africa escaped a civil war that would have torn it, and much of Africa, apart, is one of the great lessons of human history, and it’s a lesson that should become part of the required curriculum in every classroom, in every school, in every country.
But the lesson is more complicated than the story of a single exceptional man. The impulse to deify Mandela is compelling, but there was more to the complex equation of South Africa’s liberation than the transcendent spirit of a charismatic and remarkably wise leader. The global campaign to drive western investment out of South Africa had an important impact on the apartheid regime, while it ironically cast into stark relief the tortured Cold War politics that gave Ronald Reagan an excuse to accommodate apartheid through the vacuous policy of “constructive engagement.”