Source: USA TODAY
JOHANNESBURG — For all his years of struggle, imprisonment and political leadership, it was Nelson Mandela’s capacity to embrace his former oppressors without bitterness in order to achieve a multiracial national reconciliation that stands out as his most enduring legacy.
“A lot of us regard him almost like a second Jesus,” said Zanele Zikalala, a young black woman raised in the black township of Soweto but who now lives in middle-class suburbia. “I think he taught a lot of people and the world what true reconciliation is – and what forgiveness is.”
After spending 27 years as a prisoner of the racist apartheid regime that previously ruled South Africa, a time that he was forced to endure humiliations aimed at breaking his spirit, Mandela walked out of prison in 1990 free of anger and ready to negotiate a new democracy to replace the minority white rule.
And when overwhelmingly elected the first black president of his nation, Mandela invited his former prison guards to the inauguration and accepted the previous white president, F.W. de Klerk, into his administration as first deputy.
Together they were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993, after Mandela’s release from prison but before his election, “for their work for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa,” in the words of the Nobel committee.
Many ordinary South Africans of all races credit Mandela’s personal spirit of reconciliation, peace and forgiveness with saving the nation from what could have been a bloody civil war.
Zikalala, 34, works as a quality analyst with a major utility company, achieving a career and life she says was impossible, even unthinkable, before Mandela’s achievements.
For the minority white Afrikaners, descendents of the Dutch settlers who saw their political grip on the nation slip away with the end of apartheid and arrival of democracy, Mandela’s refusal to seek revenge helped them accept and embrace a new multiracial world.
“He was not going to lower himself to the level of the people who were oppressing him,” says Kathy Kay, a white South African and urban planner in Johannesburg.
Kay says she and many other whites, some of whom were angry or fearful of the change that Mandela brought, grew to recognize that his leadership and vision of a rainbow society created room in South Africa’s future for them as well. It could easily have been otherwise, as liberation movements elsewhere in Africa proved far more bloody.
“I admired him,” she says, “because he did it in such a gentle way.”
After watching the anti-apartheid struggle bring international condemnation to their nation in the 1980s, many whites entered the 1990s fearful they could be driven from their land and economic stake in the nation in which they were born. Kay says she did not share that fear, however, because of Mandela’s role in calming the waters, resisting black nationalism and those who wanted to punish the Afrikaners for years of harsh minority rule and human rights violations.
“I put it all down to Madiba,” says Kay, using his tribal name. “He actually put a lid on that. … There was anger, resentment – but it didn’t turn into a major civil war that other places experienced.”
For Lorraine Garth, 36, who grew up in South Africa and now is a mother in Mason, Ohio, Mandela’s legacy is with her every day. Because of the collapse of apartheid, she was able to work as an au pair in the United States, where she met her husband, Kyle.
Garth was the child of a multiracial family and while officially black, she attended school near Durban with whites. Those years were a time of great unease, with many of her white schoolmates not quite ready to embrace the new order.
“It was the fear – ‘Oh my God, what is going to happen to us,’ that gripped her friends, she said.
But back in South Africa for a visit this week, she met with some of those friends again and found them mourning Mandela’s passing just as she was. “They’ve changed,” she said.
Her husband credits Mandela with making it possible for him to meet his wife and raise two children, Kaeden, 5, and Leyna, 3.
Mandela, he says, was “the embodiment of forgiveness, and that’s what you need.”
If the arrival of a multiracial democratic society has affected South Africans in many personal ways, so too has Mandela’s death.
Zikalala dried her tears Monday and put on a “doek,” or African head scarf worn as a sign of grief, and went to the late leader’s statue at Nelson Mandela Square.
“I believe in him there was obviously something bigger than being a regular South African,” she said. “He came here for a purpose, by some higher power. His purpose was to save us from apartheid.”
Some analysts say that it was a mixture of the unwavering self-control developed over his years in prison, as well as pragmatic political strategy, that made Mandela the figure he was.
Wayne Dooling, senior lecturer in African history at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, said Mandela succeeded in a cause others also tried to advance.
“He wasn’t the only African leader to preach national unity and national reconciliation at critical moments, but his stature was such that he could pull it off,” said Dooling.
“He was able to bring all these different persuasions together in pursuit of one goal, and to put sectarian divisions aside or party divisions aside for the time being,” Dooling said. “And that was the strength of the personality, to bring different political visions to bear.”
“It was quite a harsh life in prison. There was a lot humiliation,” said Ineke van Kessel, a historian at the African Studies Center at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. “I think he managed to jump over his own shadow and think of the bigger goal for his nation and for his people. He did not allow his own emotions to take over.”
Contributing: Jesse Singal, Janelle Dumalaon
Copyright © 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.