Not only that: When he completed his remarkable rise from South African “terrorist” under the apartheid regime to South African president in a new multiracial democracy, he made it a point to reach out and reassure nervous whites that they still had a place in the new nation now taking shape. And then there was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Formed in 1995, it provided a forum for the airing and investigation of human rights abuses committed under apartheid — both by its defenders and those who fought against it.
It was also tasked with making recommendations of amnesty for victimizers and reparations for their victims, and with constructing an authoritative and official record of what happened.
The process was imperfect — the military leaders of the apartheid regime refused to participate, the post-Mandela government was slow to act on the commission’s findings. Still, it provided a visionary blueprint for the handling of human rights abuses and reflected a sophisticated understanding of a fundamental principle that escapes many of us: The victims can never be whole and never be healed until they are heard.
One can only speculate — and with no small bit of envy — how this country might now be different had it ever understood, as Mandela’s country did, that there can be no reconciliation where there is not first truth. But then, the United States operates under a different credo: Ignore it and it will go away. The fact that it has never worked has never dissuaded the country from believing it.
“Now he belongs to the ages.” What Secretary of War Edwin Stanton famously said of Abraham Lincoln when the 16th president died, President Barack Obama repeated Thursday of Nelson Mandela. And so he does. Now history — South African and international — moves on without the man who did so much to shape it and bend it toward good.