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Revolution: From Prisoner to the World's Moral Authority

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June 27, 2008

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s world-famous political prisoner who became his nation’s first democratically elected president, turns 90 years old this summer.

Fourteen years ago, under a full Autumn moon, about two poignant minutes apart before midnight and after — I witnessed a white soldier lower South Africa’s old flag for the last time and a black soldier raise his nation’s new colors.

The people of South Africa — including, for the first time, the majority black population — had gone to the polls in a jubilant, chaotic and epochal election and altered the course of their nation’s bitter history. A liberation election finally put the beast of apartheid in the grave and Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela into power as president of South Africa.

“I will concentrate on those things which give hope to all South Africans,” Mandela, who was the symbol and instrument of the anti-apartheid struggle, said on being elected.

The original white Dutch settlers arranged things so that whites would hold the power and wealth of the nation. Hendrik Verwoerd and his cohort in 1948 codified those policies into apartheid — the system of racist laws and policies by which South Africa’s 5.6 million whites oppressed 24 million blacks and others of mixed race for half a century. Verwoerd never expected blacks to vote. By the 1980’s, however, South Africa, the last colonial outpost on the African continent, had become a pariah nation, apartheid reviled, its economy tottering on the edge of collapsing from the strain of sanctions and the unrelenting violence of the liberation struggle.

Then-president F.W. de Klerk told the Times of London the reason apartheid had to end:

“A more conservative government might possibly keep the lid on the pot for another five years. But, after that, the pot will explode and blow us and our future into the air.”

He found an essential partner in Nelson Mandela. Mandela, born July 18, 1918, was a lawyer, then an activist and, finally, an opponent of apartheid. South Africa’s white government put Mandela on trial for treason in 1963. At his sentencing, Mandela proclaimed his ideals:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Mandela was imprisoned and held on the harsh Robben Island for 27 years, during which his legend grew almost too great for any one man to bear.

“I am not prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free,” he once proclaimed to his jailers on being offered freedom in exchange for giving up the fight against apartheid. He had received numerous such offers since 1963. De Klerk, six months after assuming the presidency, lifted the ban on political activity by Mandela’s group, the African National Congress, and gave Mandela his unconditional release from prison.

De Klerk and the old liberation fighter then hammered out a new Constitution for South Africa.

When Mandela won the presidency, following the 1994 election, it was a remarkable transition to which I was a witness: for perhaps the first time in human history, a tyrannical leadership voluntarily gave up power to the very people it had long oppressed. Mandela, at his moment of triumph, spoke from his heart and danced like a boy. It was a victorious day for all South Africans, he proclaimed. “The people have won.”

But no one knew better than de Klerk how bitter the struggle ahead could be.

“Mr. Mandela has walked a long road and stands at the top of the hill,” de Klerk said. “A traveler would sit down and admire the view, but a man of destiny knows that behind this hill lies another hill, and another. The journey is never complete.”

To win South Africa’s presidency, though a great leap forward, was a poisoned chalice: A lifeboat with too many people on one side, Mandela must steer the country through dangerous waters: ethnic rivalry, black anger and white anxiety. For whites, would they flee the country or cower in their homes awaiting the black horde to come and take away the wealth they spent a lifetime accruing? And for the long oppressed majority black population, how could anyone, even their beloved Mandela, counsel patience at this moment of their triumph?

The problems facing Mandela and his new government were staggering: 40 percent unemployment, 50 percent illiteracy, widespread crime and political violence that had killed more than 11,000 people since 1990, ethnic polarization and the impatience of tens of millions of blacks demanding a better life now that apartheid is over.

Those very early years after the historic election were perhaps the most dangerous for the new nation of South Africa. A less sure hand and the country would quickly slide into chaos. Mandela led by example. He served one term in the presidency and yielded power to a successor, an exceptional transition on the continent of Africa, where liberators soon turn to despots.

But no one should have expected anything different from the courageous Mandela; he is fond of saying “If you are in harmony with yourself, you may meet a lion without fear.”

Although the actual date is not until July 18, many around the world have already begun saying “Happy 90th birthday, Madiba!” with more than 20 events around the world through the year, including a kick-off birthday concert today in London’s Hyde Park.

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