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There are very few people at whose death the world experiences loss. Not in a sentimental sense, but in the sense of losing a vision, an image of what a piece of work man can be. The passing of Nelson Mandela is such an event: the almost bloodless transition of South Africa from white minority rule to a multiracial democracy would have been unthinkable without his leadership, and the history of the world would have been different without it. Yet Mandela’s long walk to freedom was complicated, many of his decisions and actions controversial. Perhaps that is why his heroism has such a powerful appeal — he was a man who made and re-made himself, his sights steady on the goal of dismantling apartheid, of creating an equal society and a democratic country. When he was sentenced to prison for life in 1964, he proclaimed in court that he cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. This was an ideal he hoped to live for and achieve, but if necessary, it was an ideal for which he was prepared to die.

The clarity of and affirmation in the declaration — Mandela was expecting to realize his vision, dying was a secondary option — are a clue to the spell he cast as leader. He was no martyr-hero, but a man who aimed to achieve what seemed impossible at the time. That he should, while fighting imperialism and apartheid, believe in non-violence as political strategy could seem a historical felicity, but Mandela was born only four years after Gandhi left the country in 1914, and non-violence was an ideal among some leaders in the African National Congress when he was a young man. But Mandela’s early relationship to non-violence was not simple: when he felt the need for a different approach, he became part of an armed wing.

His self-fashioning continued through 27 years in prison. When he was finally freed, he emerged as the patient, unwavering and clear-seeing statesman who was to lead the way in the transformation of South Africa through the ‘diplomacy’ of forgiveness and reconciliation. He never disguised the practicality of his approach. Leaders cannot afford to hate, he said, because hatred gets in the way of strategy. His greatness was inextricable from this luminous wisdom. He was linked not just to Gandhi but also to Martin Luther King Jr., who sought to change race relations through non-violence. Mandela embodied the power of peaceful reconciliation in a world torn by violence; political intelligence and practicality were important means in achieving his vision.

Mandela did not stop work when he stepped down as president of the ANC in 1997, then as president of South Africa in 1999. His message to nations to resolve conflicts through diplomacy and reconciliation is part of his legacy. The courageous do not fear forgiving, he said, for the sake of peace.