The world, not just Africa, is mourning the loss of its most revered leader and statesman. Nelson Mandela, who symbolised man's fight for freedom against oppression, died from complications of a chronic lung infection. In death he has united the world, which is paying him personal tribute. In life, he humbled friend and foe alike with an unaffected quality of forgiveness that united a nation divided and redivided by racial and fratricidal hatred. He showed no bitterness over the suffering he endured inside jail for 27 years, as the icon of the struggle against apartheid. His forgiveness even embraced the fearful white jailers who refused to let him mourn at the funerals of his mother and his eldest son.
Mandela's extraordinary global appeal has been attributed to this unaffected forgiveness, along with charisma and self-deprecating humour. It is hard to imagine that anyone less exceptional could orchestrate the painful national reconciliation that enabled peaceful transition to majority rule, under which he became the country's first black president.
The life jail sentence on Mandela, then a leader of the now-ruling African National Congress, was prompted by his launching of a campaign of economic sabotage after the Sharpeville massacre by police of 69 protesters against hated pass laws in 1960. Mandela's calm defiance in the dock proved a rallying cry for the oppressed: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities," he said. "... if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Thankfully, it did not come to that, though his lung problems began while in captivity. Mandela's release in 1990 became, for many people, one of those moments in history never forgotten. It was symbolic of his unifying force that he shared a Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk, the white president who freed him. It was symbolic of his democratic legacy that he retired when he could have ruled for as long as he wanted. It falls to his successors to use the political power he won to continue the fight for equal opportunity.
Mandela became a peace ambassador and HIV/Aids campaigner. In a poignant moment in 2005, he defied cultural taboos inhibiting the fight against HIV/Aids by announcing that it had claimed the life of his surviving son, and imploring South Africans to talk about it as if it were a normal disease. If ever mourners should heed the call to celebrate a life, it is now.