At a time of bitterly divided politics in our country, the passing of Nelson Mandela offers us a valuable reminder of how great leaders can bridge great divides and get reconciliation right.
Among other memories, I am reminded of how nervous I found South Africans of all colors to be in 1976, the summer of the historic uprising by schoolchildren in the black Soweto townships near Johannesburg during my first overseas reporting assignment for the Chicago Tribune, where I still work.
There was little doubt that Mandela was the republic's most popular and unifying black leader, even as he was serving a life imprisonment sentence on Robben Island for plotting to overthrow the country's white-minority regime. The country's white population, vastly outnumbered by nonwhites, understandably was haunted by nightmarish "bloodbath" visions of racial retribution.
They weren't alone. Many nonwhites — divided by tribal ethnicities or by the apartheid system's bureaucratic designations "black," ''colored" (mixed race) and "Asian" — also were apprehensive of interethnic rivalries as ancient as the Zulu, Xhosa and other tribal factions.
By then, Mandela had been kept out of touch with his public for so long that many wondered whether he would be able to take charge even of his own ANC, which, according to various reports and rumors, had fallen into divisions and disarray. Could he live up to his own eloquent promises of democratic rule and racial equality?
It is a sign of America's old Cold War wariness that Mandela and other leaders of his African National Congress remained on the U.S. terrorism watch list long after he was released from prison in 1990 and elected president in 1994. President George W. Bush signed a bill to remove them from the list in 2008 at the insistence of then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.