Michael Gerson: Legacy of a first citizen

Published: July 9, 2013
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He was also, of course, modern South Africa's George Washington, its first citizen. Post-colonial nations are blessed or cursed by their founding presidents. Across the border in Zimbabwe, that nation's Washington turned out to be a petty, corrupt, vengeful despot. Mandela, in contrast, honored constitutional procedures, respected minority rights and instilled democratic habits.

And while not a religious leader, he exercised a form of spiritual leadership. He took a leap of faith to trust the representatives of a police state. He displayed the grace that was necessary to break a chain of violence. And he understood the enormous power of a blow unstruck.

Historians have excavated the biographical layers that produced such leadership. From the tribal court — his father was the counselor to a Thembu chief — Mandela gained a dignity and self-confidence that can only be called aristocratic. From missionary schools, he seemed to absorb Victorian lessons of fair play and respect for law. One Mandela biographer, Tom Lodge, argues that this background produced “a politics of grace and honor that, notwithstanding its conservatism, was probably the only politics that could have enabled South Africa's relatively peaceful transition to democracy.”

As a young man, Mandela embraced militant ideology. On the far side of prison — against the predictions of many — he was a political pragmatist. He could see and accommodate the interests of his former oppressors. He did not want to rule over a ruin. But there was also a core beyond compromise. From prison, he smuggled out a note reading: “Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose.” And they did.

Given its history, South Africa is never far from the abyss, and Mandela's successors have been smaller leaders. The country, in some ways, has regressed toward division — racial resentment, persistent inequality, and abuses by party elites. But South Africa will always have one advantage, and one thing in common with America: At every point of decision, it is improved by honoring the example of its first citizen.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP

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