Nelson Mandela's enduring gift to his country was not only creating a path toward racial reconciliation in South Africa, but living long enough to help manage the transition. Though still a work in progress, South Africa's move toward an integrated society serves as a model on the continent and elsewhere for what leaders can do when they choose to become freedom fighters for the entirety of mankind.
Mandela, who died Thursday at 95, will be remembered as the father of modern South Africa and an inspirational leader far beyond his country. Imprisoned by the white regime for 27 years for leading opposition to the official policy of racial segregation, Mandela wrote a new chapter for both his country and himself, leading the nation to its first multiracial election in 1994 and taking office as that country's first black and democratically elected president.
His courage, conscience and dedication to peaceful change might be seen as quaint in the modern era, given the anxiety over global terror and the spike in religious extremism. But his extraordinary journey was as hard as any in the world today. The pain, sacrifice and humiliations he suffered for such a long period could have taken South Africa into an entirely different direction. But feeling the brunt of subjugation firsthand convinced Mandela, as he said in his inaugural, that racial oppression by any side could happen "never, never and never again."
The strength of character he showed in reaching out to his tormenters was one thing. Another was his ability to hold the nation together during a spasm of change in the 1990s and put South Africa on a new course. He and Frederik de Klerk, the white president who preceded him, shared a sense of trust, respect and pragmatism that ultimately acted as a moral force to bring a peaceful end to apartheid.
Mandela's sense of forgiveness continues to be an inspiration worldwide. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recounted this week how Mandela served as a role model in peace talks over Northern Ireland. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry invoked Mandela's spirit in calling on the Israelis and Palestinians to make the hard choices necessary for a lasting peace deal. Mandela may be gone, but he remains a towering figure in South Africa and across the globe, and his message of reconciliation is a legacy that will live long after next week's tributes and funeral.