Twenty-seven of Nelson Mandela's 95 years on Earth were spent in a prison in apartheid South Africa. By all accounts, his time in a Robben Island prison cell was one of tremendous hardship. In 1982, he was moved to Pollsmoor Prison, in suburban Cape Town, and though he was allowed visits by his family, they had to communicate through glass using an intercom. Four years later, the South African government began serious talks with Mandela, who was the most famous face of the African National Congress, about a post-apartheid South Africa. In 1988, close to death from tuberculosis, Mandela was transferred to another prison, and in 1990, he was released amid escalating civil strife. He formed a Government of National Unity and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate, but not prosecute, human rights abuses. He served as South Africa's president from 1994 to 1999 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Though South Africa was a powderkeg with death and mayhem threatening to strike the primer, he was able to diffuse racial tensions and prevent a race war. While the nation is far from perfect, we can safely say it is much better off had it not had a man such as Nelson Mandela to guide it through those early days of transition from white rule to democracy.
His actions following 44 years of living under apartheid and 27 years in prison are nothing less than incomprehensible for many of us who would have had nothing but the taste of bitterness and a quest for vengeance if subjected to even half of what he endured.
Mandela is an example of an unabashed political activist and agitator, wrote Aviva Shen and Jedd Legum for thinkprogress.com.
"He did not shy away from controversy and he did not seek -- or obtain -- universal approval. Before and after his release from prison, he embraced an unabashedly progressive and provocative platform."
He was one of the harshest critics of American imperialism and its war in Iraq and the War on Terror, in general. (We would be remiss if we didn't note that Mandela was on the U.S. terrorist watch list until 2008.) He also embraced some of America's fiercest political enemies, including Fidel Castro and Muammar Gaddafi. Mandela called out racism in America, wrote Shen and Legum. "On a trip to New York City in 1990, Mandela made a point of visiting Harlem and praising African Americans' struggles against ‘the injustices of racist discrimination and economic inequality,'" they wrote.
Shen and Legum pointed out that Mandela considered poverty one of the greatest evils in the world, and spoke out against inequality everywhere.
"Massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times -- times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation -- that they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils," said Mandela.
While Mandela has been an easy target for right-wing reactionaries in the United States, most of us will remember him for the quality of his forgiveness and the power of his character. Perhaps the most fitting way to honor his legacy is to not mourn him, but learn to be more like him.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, writing for the Harvard Business Review, noted "He maintained his faith in people no matter what, that people would come right in the end."
Mandela didn't just make "the rare transition from revolutionary to statesman," wrote Kanter. "He resisted pressure to simply switch roles from oppressed to oppressor and instead focused everyone on pride in the nation they shared and on working together for larger common goals."
Mandela not only promised he wouldn't serve more than one five-year term as president, he actually followed through on the promise, "a remarkable action not only in Africa, a continent riddled with corrupt leaders who refuse to cede power, but also for someone who had waited so long and given so much to reach that position," noted Kanter.
But once out of office, Mandela was not done with advocating for justice.
"In a mere five years in office, he couldn't transform everything," wrote Kanter. "But he could start programs and create institutions that would shift other people's actions to a more productive path. He could serve as a role model, conveying messages through his personal actions and his words about what kind of behavior, what kind of culture, would characterize the new South Africa he envisioned."
Kanter wrote that Mandela's legacy is writ large around the globe; he is a true treasure and citizen of the entire world.
"His legacy lies in the lessons about leadership he left for all of us. We can pay tribute by channeling him: Discouraged because things don't break your way? Consider Mandela's 27 years in prison. Unwilling to give up the perqs of power? Recall Mandela's no-more-than-five-years promise. Tempted to crush the competition, eviscerate enemies, or publicly humiliate those who make mistakes? Find your inner Mandela, forgive, and move on."
That is an amazing lesson many of us should take to heart, not only in our public lives, but also in our personal lives. After all, this is a season when we are asked to remember a man who died for our sins and live our lives more like him. Perhaps we could also remember a man who lived to fight for the rights of all oppressed peoples around the world and strive in our own ways to make the world a better place, too.