by Clarence Page
At a time of bitterly divided politics in our country, the passing of
Among other memories, I am reminded of how nervous I found South Africans of all colors to be in 1976, the summer of the historic uprising by schoolchildren in the black Soweto townships near Johannesburg during my first overseas reporting assignment for the
There was little doubt that Mandela was the republic's most popular and unifying black leader, even as he was serving a life imprisonment sentence on Robben Island for plotting to overthrow the country's white-minority regime. The country's white population, vastly outnumbered by nonwhites, understandably was haunted by nightmarish "bloodbath" visions of racial retribution.
They weren't alone. Many nonwhites -- divided by tribal ethnicities or by the apartheid system's bureaucratic designations "black," "colored" (mixed race) and "Asian" -- also were apprehensive of interethnic rivalries as ancient as the Zulu, Xhosa and other tribal factions.
By then, Mandela had been kept out of touch with his public for so long that many wondered whether he would be able to take charge even of his own ANC, which, according to various reports and rumors, had fallen into divisions and disarray. Could he live up to his own eloquent promises of democratic rule and racial equality?
It is a sign of America's old Cold War wariness that Mandela and other leaders of his
That was long after Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with
In that mission, Mandela's orderly transition of power when his term ended in 1999 was just as valuable as his election. In a continent where postcolonial democracy has been defined too often as "one person, one vote, one time," Mandela would not try to be a president-for-life.
For that, I think credit goes to two qualities that gave Mandela the tools he needed to make history: his education and his deep faith as a lawyer in the rule of law. He rose from village life to be the only black law student in his class at the
Even under the daily oppression of the apartheid system of racial segregation, he saw in the law a valuable tool for both change and stability, depending on how you used it, and he used it to build a new South Africa.
"It is no coincidence that in the years since Mandela's release so much of Africa has turned toward democracy and the rule of law," wrote President
Unfortunately, controversies surrounding his successors, such as South Africa's current president
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