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He taught us how to be human and humane and how to use political power to this end.
For the longest time, during the darkest years of Apartheid in South Africa, to utter Nelson Mandela's name was to use it as shorthand to refer to the unjust order that prevailed in his country, from exclusion from political power to every indignity imposed as a way of life on the black majority on racist grounds. During his 27-year-long incarceration, to ask for Mandela's release was to demand nothing less than the dismantling of Apartheid. During this time, Mandela had been put in prison and away from the public sphere and he would have made a substantive contribution to history and to his people by just being that icon, the man who negotiated his unconditional release from captivity in return for a sweeping away of an unequal, discriminatory regime. Just that, and no one could have faulted him for not doing more. To have played a galvanising role in securing categorical equality for every citizen of his country would have been legacy enough.
But Mandela, whose death we mourn today and whose life struggle we applaud and celebrate, did yet more. Madiba, to use the Xhosa clan name he was affectionately addressed by, rose to be among the very few whose biography is a vital playbook for how to be human and humane and how to use political power to this end. Once a free man, on February 11, 1990, he steered his country — charmed it — to internalising the true meaning of the liberation he had devoted his life to winning. To be truly free was to have not just your own rights, it was to guarantee every individual's — it was to present one's better self to invite the other's. That was the spirit of the unity government he led as president, upon South Africa's first free elections in 1994. It was, critically, the spirit that guided the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that intimated the line between the past and the present. If the upholders of the erstwhile Apartheid regime gauged the enlightened, and stinging, rebuke in this, they did not make a great production of their regret. No matter. The moral authority that Mandela embodied permitted nobody — former oppressor or oppressed — to be detained by vengeance or recrimination. Without giving the appearance of being a man in a hurry, he claimed the new South Africa's place in the world, moved the ANC towards a more investment-friendly economic vision. And when the time came, he passed on the baton, setting by example the requisite tenor of democratic procedure and underlining his life-long commitment to team play.
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