As a young man, Mandela embraced militant ideology. On the far side of prison — against the predictions of many — he was a political pragmatist. He could see and accommodate the interests of his former oppressors. He did not want to rule over a ruin. But there was also a core beyond compromise. From prison, he smuggled out a note reading: "Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose." And they did.
Given its history, South Africa is never far from the abyss, and Mandela's successors have been smaller leaders. The country, in some ways, has regressed toward division — racial resentment, persistent inequality, and abuses by party elites. But South Africa will always have one advantage, and one thing in common with America: At every point of decision, it is improved by honoring the example of its first citizen.
Michael Gerson's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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