As the world mourns the loss of Nelson Mandela, it’s difficult to sum up the impact of his legacy. As a revolutionary activist, he gave hope and courage to millions of people in South Africa and later became an international symbol of reconciliation. While it’s easy to remember him in iconic terms, as the transcendent leader who brought the reviled apartheid system to its knees, Mandela also left us with an impressive record of governance.
After emerging from 27 years of incarceration in 1990, including a long-term stint in the brutal prison on Robben Island, Mandela opened negotiations with South African President F.W. de Klerk’s government, leading to open elections in 1994. In those elections, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president amid much fanfare. It was a moment that was filled with uncertainty and tension as the country experienced dramatic change almost overnight. However, under the collaborative “government of national unity,” he forged a new multilingual, multiracial coalition that authored a new constitution and created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the abuses perpetuated during the apartheid era. Though the process was rocky, Mandela managed a tremendous feat by insisting on the rule of law, and his wise stewardship of the process resulted in a South Africa today that boasts a stable democracy and a vibrant economy that is one of the continent’s most robust.
Mandela served only one term as president, yet during his short time in office, he helped appeal to all parts of South African society, building trust and buy-in for the fledgling democracy. Characterized by a gentle grace as well as a firm desire to account for the injustice and brutality of previous Afrikaner governments, Mandela was the rare African leader who made a successful and peaceful transition from militant activist to a statesman with the political acumen to build partnerships and participation in a new government. It’s an example that not too many leaders of liberation struggles in Africa and their heirs have always followed.
Portrayed in movies such as Invictus and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela’s model will remain inscribed in popular memory for a long time. And hopefully, his legacy as a leader—from his shrewd understanding of policy to his ability to find common ground with opponents—will continue to inspire leaders and governments for years to come as well.