Mandela's gift of grace

By finding his freedom in grace and dignity, he was able to help bring freedom to all South Africans.

Nelson Mandela sits beneath the window of his former prison cell on Robben Island near Cape Town, in this 2003 photo.

In his later years, one of Nelson Mandela’s biggest worries was that people would always see him as a saint. To keep him on a pedestal was to miss the point. Rather, the grace that he used to help turn a white-ruled police state into a “rainbow” democracy was not his alone. It is a universal trait, one that, long after his passing, will help South Africans – indeed all people – find a common humanity.

As he wrote in a letter to his wife from his Robben Island prison cell in 1975, the qualities that are crucial for anyone – honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, pure generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve others – “are within easy reach of every soul.”

For him, however, it was not always easy. When Mr. Mandela gave his first speech after being released in 1990, he was shocked by the size of the crowd and wavered in his courage. “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant,” he said.

During 27 years of suffering in prison, he gained a different sense of leadership. He learned patience and meekness could evaporate racial hatred and oppression like sunlight on fog. He mastered the language of his Afrikaner guards, for example, and befriended them, exchanging bitterness for unmerited grace. He learned to be measured and disciplined, shedding his militant past and a desire for vengeance. His freedom, he found, did not depend on his material circumstances.

His fellow South African, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, says Mandela’s grace and passion came from knowing “the infinite worth of everyone because of being created in the image of God.” Such understanding was behind his many symbolic acts of healing.

His former jailer was a VIP guest at Mandela’s 1994 presidential inauguration. The prosecutor at his 1964 trial, someone who sought the death sentence for Mandela, later had lunch with the new president. Mandela had tea with the widow of the South African leader who set up the apartheid system.

In an act made famous in the 2009 film “Invictus,” he wore the green-and-gold jersey of the whites-only national rugby team, the Springboks, sending a message to blacks that they, too, must embrace their former oppressors, the Afrikaners. “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” he often said.

To drive home a need for humility and to wean South Africans from a dependence on him, Mandela walked away from seeking a second term as president. It was an act that showed them power does not lie in one person but in service to others.

In 2009, the United Nations declared each July 18 (his birthday) to be Mandela Day, encouraging people to spend at least an hour on that day in acts of charity and reconciliation. The designation showed the global appeal of what one biographer called Mandela’s “politics of grace.”

Comb the comments offered by world leaders after Mandela’s death Dec. 5 and the most common description of him is one of grace. He found a way to be forgiving of others without condoning their behavior – and even insisting they change. His benevolence was as much for his own healing and redemption as that of others.

Mandela the man is not the glue that binds South Africans today as they continue to struggle with violence and economic inequalities. His life can serve as a reminder of the moral gifts he gained and shared. His grace was in his actions. They set examples that are still within easy reach of everyone.

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