South African leader Nelson Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95. But his impact on the people of South Africa, the African continent, and the rest of the world will endure.
How far Mr. Mandela’s country had to come to achieve justice and inclusion, from the beginning of his career in the 1950s until his inauguration as South Africa’s first black president in 1994, is hard to imagine. Its racist rules benefiting whites were enshrined in law and strictly enforced, despite a black majority of roughly 80 percent.
Mr. Mandela, who came from a noble rural family and was educated in the law, was the key inspirational figure in black South Africans’ drive to freedom. That was an incredible piece of luck, for white and black South Africans alike.
White-on-black violence provoked black-on-white violence, despite a Gandhian philosophical core of black South Africans’ approach to the struggle. Mr. Mandela was prominent in the direction of the African National Congress’ armed Spear of the Nation militia, even while he was in prison.
Mr. Mandela’s signature characteristic was his belief in the need for reconciliation to achieve his goal of a democratic, multiracial South Africa. That was remarkable for someone who was imprisoned for 27 years, 18 of them spent breaking rocks on an island.
The United States, as well as white South Africans, needed Mr. Mandela’s forgiveness to proceed beyond its tardy retreat from support of the white minority apartheid regime in Pretoria. The United States finally got that forgiveness, and the impression Mr. Mandela’s example made on America’s first African-American president is clear.
It is appropriate for President Obama to go to South Africa for the funeral of one of the greatest people of our time. Americans will learn more about South Africa in coming days.
Many of South African’s problems await resolution: achieving a more-equitable division of wealth, getting further past ethnic differences, and developing more leaders such as Mr. Mandela. He leaves South Africans a potentially invaluable point of reference if they can ask themselves, faced by difficult issues, what Nelson Mandela would have done.
His now can rest in peace. But the exemplary lessons he taught the world will live on through history.