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A true leader who put his people first

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: December 07, 2013

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The life of Nelson Mandela touched us all.

His determination, doggedness, wisdom and ability to forgive and forget saved thousands of lives, as he intervened to prevent South Africa from becoming a foretaste of what we see in present-day Syria.

For all of us he became an example of a leader who put his country before himself.

He stands beside Mahatma Gandhi as someone who rose above imprisonment, provocation and revenge.

Even after 27 years of isolation, he was able to effortlessly cross the line from being considered a "terrorist" to being a respected world statesman.

His light burned brightly in the final decades of his long life and he maximised the small window of opportunity that his advanced years offered him.

From the window of a 747 flying into Johannesburg in the 1980s anyone could see apartheid laid out below the wing.

On the horizon: the dusty outlines of the South West Township dormitories for blacks; the threads of railway reaching inwards to the city centre where black people slogged it out under the huge amber slagheaps of the gold mines; the opalescent beads of the swimming pools in the spacious gardens of rich whites. South Africa was deeply troubled.

The non-white population endured the conspiracy of restrictive legislation, the hated identification pass, police surveillance, government brutality and the hypocritical creation of "Bantustans" – those isolated, barren "homelands" like holes in a gruyere cheese.

Despite attempts by enlightened groups of white citizens to support the frustrated non-white community, in the townships there was regular violence expertly concealed from those living in the safety of the pleasant suburbs.

But the outside world had the overwhelming sense that things had gone too far to be repaired. There was a sense of impending massive disorder.

Hidden from public view was the legendary Nelson Mandela, known about internationally, but to most people an unknown quantity. His release from prison in 1990 was a global event, memorable to all who watched it live on television. These first steps into international acclaim arose from extensive international lobbying and from the extraordinary vision of the then South African President, F W de Klerk, who provided the world with a sobering lesson to politicians by instigating an almost miraculous renunciation of naked power.

The resultant change gives hope to all the dispossessed and the hopeless.

Nobody visiting Pretoria in 1986 could have imagined for one moment that ten years later they would see the flag of the ANC flying proudly above the elegant Lutyens parliament building, following a democratic election.

That change symbolises the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, the ability to grow spiritually and to set aside old scores.

While imprisoned Mandela learned the language and studied the history of his oppressors to better understand them.

He had the intelligence and inner confidence to love his enemies and to recognise the potential for growth in the darkest of places.

His life reflects the celebrated words in King Lear that capture the acceptance that while life may begin and end in chaos, it is maturity that matters:

"Men must endure

Their going hence, even as their coming hither:

Ripeness is all".

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