- - Friday, December 6, 2013

I never met Nelson Mandela and like most conservatives and anti-Communists I was more than a little skeptical at South Africa’s prospects as his ANC came closer and closer to bringing that country’s white rulers down in the late 1980s.

Mandela’s wife “Winnie” was a violent radical and proponent of necklacing. This was the practice of forcing a tire filled with kerosene or gasoline over the head and around the neck of an opponent and lighting it so one could watch a truly horrible death. Many of her targets were ANC members she considered disloyal and as she and those around her became increasingly violent in the ANC struggle against apartheid, South Africa’s future looked increasingly bleak.

The ANC included many Communists, and western leftists admired them in the way they looked up to Castro and “Che” Guevara in this hemisphere. Mandela himself, while a founder of the ANC and an iconic figure, was in prison where he had languished for more than two decades. He had refused to renounce violence and many assumed that if and when he got out, he would take his place as head of the ANC and push for a violent revolution with all that might entail. That too was what many of his leftist admirers expected of him.

We were all wrong. On his release, Mandela emerged as the one man who could bridge the racial gap in his country, sit down with the despised leaders of the white regime they sought to topple and come up with a deal that would turn the reins of power over to South Africa’s black majority while protecting many of the rights of the white minority and create the continents first real attempt at a successful multi-racial society. He made that deal and sold it to his people. To make the deal, he sat down with then-President F.W. de Klerk even before his release from prison and convinced him that the two of them had to work together to save the country they both loved. As a result, the civil war that might have been was avoided and while the tribal and racial tensions that have torn apart other African nations may lurk under the surface in South Africa, thanks to Nelson Mandela that’s where they remain.

At his inauguration after assuming power in 1994, he made a point of inviting the warden of the prison in which he had lived for 27 years. By word, deed and manner the man made it clear that his eyes were on the future not the past and that a successful future meant all South Africans were going to have to move on.

South Africa could easily have taken the course that destroyed what was once Rhodesia and is today Zimbabwe. It didn’t because South Africa had Nelson Mandela rather than Robert Mugabe. South Africa today is a successful nation with a bright future while Zimbabwe is a basket case run by a petty despot who has destroyed his country, turned one of the continent’s most prosperous nations into an economic wasteland, steals elections and murders or exiles his opponents.

Mandela’s successors have been far less committed to the values that made him great, but have not dared to wander far from the course he charted for his country. His stature and influence were great even after his retirement. When his successor Tabo Mbeki all but endorsed the racial expropriation initiated by Mr. Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe, Mandela though retired gave a speech in which he quoted Jefferson on the right and duty of a people to rise up against rulers that trample intolerably on their rights. The speech and its timing were clearly directed at what was going on in Zimbabwe though Mandela never named that country, its leader or that fact that his successor shouldn’t be giving the mpression that what was going on there was acceptable. That was enough. There was no more praise from Pretoria for the monster next door.

In many ways, Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary example of how a leader can make a difference not only in his own country, but in the world. It is true that he freed his people and just as true that he saved his country. From time to time, true giants emerge as leaders who do more good than anyone would have believed possible. Nelson Mandela was such a leader. He was a giant in life and remains so in death.

David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.