Even as much of the world mourns his passing, it is easy to underestimate Nelson Mandela's greatness. His legacy has been fused with Tinseltown dramas starring such presidential figures as Dennis Haysbert and Morgan Freeman. Accustomed as we are to Hollywood's happy endings, we might miss the sheer extraordinariness of Mandela's life.
He was a once-in-a-century figure, the sort of man who could endure the most inhumane treatment and emerge with grace, dignity and not a trace of bitterness. His ability to forgive the Afrikaners who devised the depraved system of apartheid -- and to urge his fellow black South Africans to do the same -- was an incredible gift to the nation he led.
Today's South Africa is no blissful paradise, its gorgeous beaches, enthralling wildlife sanctuaries and stunning mountain vistas notwithstanding. The nation struggles with a staggering rate of violent crime. It has the world's highest incidence of HIV infection. And it harbors an income inequality that would befit any feudal state.
Still, its people made the transition from apartheid without all-out civil war. It is not only Africa's most successful economy, but also the 28th-largest in the world. Its democratic elections are widely believed to be fairly conducted. None of those successes was pre-ordained, and they were all given a major assist by the preternatural spirit of one man: Mandela.
In 1990, following his release from prison, I wrote newspaper dispatches from South Africa's major cities and from poor, desperate, all-black townships. I witnessed the anxiety, the anticipation, the fear, the jubilation and the jockeying for political position that accompanied the collapse of apartheid.
As the old system fell apart, traditional black leaders clashed with Mandela's African National Congress in a contest for dominance in the new order. There was much intrigue among the black factions, some of which erupted into violence. (It was fueled by the apartheid government, which secretly funded one faction's attacks on the ANC).
In the end, Mandela was the one figure who could unite South Africa's black majority. He won broad support because he had stood for so long -- through 27 years of imprisonment -- as a symbol of black defiance.
And what of white South Africans? It was clear that they would no longer rule the country's political order, but how would they fare? Many feared that their black countrymen, once in control, would turn the tables, subjecting them to the same sadism -- and silliness -- that apartheid had mandated. But Mandela would have none of that.
Convicted of treason in 1962 for his anti-apartheid activities, he was imprisoned on Robbin Island for much of his confinement. He was placed in an 8-foot by 7-foot cell and given a straw mat to sleep on. His reading material was heavily restricted -- he was not allowed newspapers -- as were his visitors. Though he was ordered to break rocks in the glaring sunlight every day, he was denied sunglasses; over time, his vision was damaged. He contracted tuberculosis. (The TB may have led to the lung ailment that eventually claimed his life.) When his firstborn son died, he was not allowed to attend the funeral.
Still, he managed to read and study during those years, learning, among other things, Afrikaans, the language of his oppressors. He figured he might be able to persuade a few of his guards to renounce apartheid.
And despite the decades of bitter confinement, he emerged an enlightened leader when he was released in 1990. He understood that his new democracy needed the technocratic skills and the economic power of its white minority. He also understood that hate could only breed more hate, reprisals more reprisals. As he put it, "Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies."
Mandela couldn't solve his country's every problem, of course. Despite the expectations raised by the end of white rule, most black South Africans still live in abject poverty. Corruption remains a threat to the rule of law. The nation could yet revert, becoming one more failed state.
But it has a decent shot at a promising future. That's the legacy Mandela bequeaths to his country.
COPYRIGHT 2013 CYNTHIA TUCKER