For one dramatic day, the man managed to live up to the myth that had gradually encompassed him during his decades of confinement outside the public eye. He had lost a lot of weight and his hair had turned gray, but those physical changes only enhanced his air of dignity. He emerged with a smile of triumph untinged by bitterness. His first unencumbered steps in 27 years were taken with a proud, erect stride. His first public words were uttered with a calm eloquence and certainty of purpose that were undiminished by such a lengthy imprisonment.
Now, as before, he committed himself to "the promotion of peace."
However, he also reasserted the militant opposition to apartheid that got him in trouble - and won him a following - in the first place.
Nelson Mandela has remained constant, and he has endured long enough to see his life's work vindicated. And like no other political prisoner in the world, he has been able to turn his personal liberation into a universal celebration of freedom and equality.
Once the immediate celebration ends, black and white South Africans of good will must move on to the laborious work of dismantling the institutions of apartheid and creating a new society. Mandela seems prepared to join with President F.W. de Klerk in that effort. They will succeed only if millions of other South Africans - blacks impatient to gain basic freedoms, and whites hesitant to give up complete political power - are able to rise to their level of statesmanship.
The United States and other nations now must forge a delicate balance: recognizing the courageous steps that the de Klerk government already has taken, while acknowledging the great distancethat South Africa still must travel.
For now, President Bush has taken an appropriate position. He praised de Klerk and proclaimed a time for "rejoicing" over Mandela's release. He also invited de Klerk and Mandela to the United States and offered to play a role in mediating future negotiations.
Mr. Bush so far has properly resisted the impulse to lift economic sanctions against South Africa prematurely. Only British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who always opposed sanctions in the first place, rushed to embrace South Africa as if the release of Mandela was tantamount to the end of apartheid.
This is a time for diplomatic responses that are commensurate with the progress of events in South Africa. Nelson Mandela's freedom represents only one important step down the long path to full social and political equality for black South Africans. The de Klerk government and the black opposition have not yet even agreed on a framework for negotiations intended to create a new political system, a new police and security apparatus, a new social order.
Washington can properly respond to events in South Africa by taking one step - but not a blind rush - toward the ultimate re-establishment of normal relations. The United States never got around to imposing economic sanctions until Mandela already had languished in jail for almost a quarter century. Millions of other black South Africans had suffered even longer under a suffocating system of white domination.
Few people possess Mandela's patience, but if President de Klerk follows through on the great promise of his first months in power, he will not have to wait nearly so long to see the lifting of sanctions and the dawn of a new era in U.S.-South African relations.