More than ninety heads of state, and tens of thousands of South Africans, met in a Soweto soccer stadium today to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela.
What accounts for the deep reverence we feel for Nelson Mandela? How did he become the most admired world leader of his generation? Why is his achievement so singular and inspirational to such a diverse worldwide audience in our era of unrestrained cynicism and disdain for political leaders?
Like millions of my contemporaries, I have been inspired and fascinated by Mr. Mandela’s story as it has unfolded over the past 50 years or so.
His lifelong struggle, including 27 years of imprisonment, against the moral stain of apartheid would have been enough, in itself, to command the world’s respect. His diplomatic and political achievement of leading white and black South Africa through an unprecedented and dangerous transition to majority rule would have been enough, in itself, to earn the world’s admiration.
But there is more.
The example of Nelson Mandela allows us to keep hoping that even our most debilitating and intractable national conflicts can be overcome.
In Egypt, where the people are struggling for reconciliation between the forces of modernity and tradition, Mr. Mandela is admired.
In the United States, where we are mired in cynicism, political gridlock and the corrosive effects of increasing economic inequality, Mr. Mandela is revered.
In Israel and Palestine, where the people are desperate for a new politics not grounded in vengeance and retaliation, Mr. Mandela is respected.
In Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants continue their long march away from the hatred and violence of their recent past, Mr. Mandela is honored for his example and role as mediator.
Mr. Mandela inspires the world because the world so desperately needs his brand of leadership. Right now. In so many places.
People, in every part of the world, contending with seemingly intractable problems, are praying for a leader with his credibility, persistence, humility, fairness and courage to show them a way out of the wilderness.
The Bible gives us the example of Moses. The contemporary political world has given us the example of Nelson Mandela. Men whose genius was to communicate a credible vision of a peaceful, just and inclusive future to their fearful, suspicious and quarreling people. Rare men destined to lead their nation’s escape from the bitter and overwhelming gravity of mistrust, recrimination and selfishness.
Nelson Mandela was not a perfect man or a saint but a man of powerful conviction who was able to lead all his people because he perceived the humanity of all his people, not just his family, tribe, and sect.
He spent a lifetime preparing himself for his destiny, and when the time came he did what seemed impossible.
Rest in peace Nelson Mandela.