Tonawanda News — While it took unimaginable grace to forgive and at many points partner with elements of the regime he fought to upend, it was his work mediating the deep rifts among South Africa’s black factions that required real political skill. It’s easy to forget 20 years later, the popular prediction at the time was once Mandela succeeded — and even then it seemed as though he would persevere — there was little faith he could establish a legitimate political apparatus capable of guiding the country to democracy.
Many people thought South Africa would devolve into some form of civil war. Mandela avoided that, in part simply because his very presence wouldn’t allow it. It was also in part due to his inclusive style of governing described by one former friend and adviser as a shepherd directing his flock.
It’s an elegant metaphor for an elegant man. Real leaders accomplish things not by forcing reticent factions to get in line but by pointing them toward a common goal. Real unity cannot be forced, it must be forged and Mandela knew this. He used it to incredible effect.
In reflecting on what to say in this column I found myself at first trying to compare Mandela to other great leaders. In researching it, the comparisons fell flat.
Picture, for a moment, the faces of recent and famous American presidents. Obama. Bush. Clinton. Reagan. Kennedy. FDR. Lincoln. Picture Dr. King, Ghandi or Mother Theresa.
Now picture Nelson Mandela’s face.
There is the shock of gray hair, his stubborn eyes sunken with age but still as piercing as the tip of a knife. And yet there is something different about Mandela’s face than the others in my mind. His wears a smile.
This, more than anything, tells me why he was able to change the world.
Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.