One of the world’s greatest men has left us.
The life of Nelson Mandela, who died today at age 95, can be summed up, for me, in a single word: courage.
He endured 27 years in prison because he fought for equality for the majority of South Africa’s citizens, who were denied basic human rights under a policy called “apartheid.”
He emerged from prison in 1990 with his head held high. He became, in an instant, a towering world figure.
Mandela then ran for president of his country in 1994. For the first time in their history, millions of black South Africans were given the chance to vote. They stood in line for days to vote. They wept. They cheered. They performed their rights as citizens with immense pride. Mandela won, becoming the first black man to lead his country.
In the summer of 2004 I had the privilege of laying eyes on the great man. I attended the International Conference on AIDS in Bangkok, Thailand. Mandela was there to talk about tuberculosis, another communicable disease that he contracted while imprisoned. He came into a room full of journalists. I stood about 40 feet from him. He spoke for a few minutes and then left the room.
I didn’t speak to the great man, shake his hand, pat him on the back, nothing. Just being in the room with him — in its way — had some undefined effect on me. I am proud to have seen him.
Yes, he had his critics. He was too cozy with communist leaders, they said. Mandela’s response: They were the folks who stood behind him during his time in prison. He owed them for their loyalty.
He also said something else upon his release. He spoke of his lack of bitterness at his captors. A coward might lash out, casting aspersions on those who had deprived him of his freedom.
Mandela, courageous man that he was, instead spoke of the triumph he had scored. Apartheid had come to an end upon his release from prison. That, he said, was cause for joy.
He was a happy man. He also embodied courage beyond measure.
Well done, Mr. President.