In the long years he spent in prison in the inhospitable Robben Island, Nelson Mandela would often read to other prisoners from William Ernest Henley’s Invictus the lines, ‘I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.’
This is how he lived his life, never blaming others for any misfortune, taking responsibility for his own fate.
The legacy of Nelson Mandela is that he lived by the principle that bitterness and hate can achieve no lasting good.
Despite the punishments inflicted on him by a brutal apartheid regime, when freedom came, Mandela did not seek revenge; instead he sought reconciliation and peace, laying the foundations for a united South Africa.
It was in his indifference to power that he stood out among Africa’s leaders. After serving as president from 1994 to 1999, he did not seek another term, rather he stepped down to make way for others.
It is a different matter that no one has been able to fill his shoes. It is not for nothing that he is called the Gandhi of South Africa. Like Gandhi, he believed that exclusionist politics could never work in a multicultural society like South Africa and he strived all his life to create an inclusive polity.
And in large part he succeeded. Even those bitterly opposed to his politics could not but have respect and admiration for his towering intellect and impeccable integrity.
Mandela never took the path of least resistance, as he said, “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere…” A private person, he met with quiet dignity the death of a beloved son and then a much loved great granddaughter.
Though always a man of the people, he did not use his personal tragedies to score political points. His charm and wit saw him at ease with other heads of State, rock stars, activists and the people of South Africa’s ghettos.
Democracy has been a frail plant in many African countries, but not so in South Africa thanks largely to the exemplary vision of Mandela.
He faced tremendous adversity in his life but not once did he seek to subvert the principles of democracy, though given his stature people would have been willing to accept any diktat from him.
He was truly an inclusive and modern leader the likes of which Africa or indeed the world will not see for a long time to come. He leaves behind a South Africa beset by many challenges.
If his party and his successors adhere to the principles he held so dear, it will be greatest tribute to this leader extraordinaire.
His passing has created a cataclysmic upheaval of sorrow around the world though it was known that the end was near for some time now. Now as Barack Obama said, “He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages.”