WASHINGTON — As Nelson Mandela lies gravely ill — heaped with tributes and obscured beneath them — it is worth recalling his defining achievement.
Mandela spent 27 years in prison, much of it in a 7-by-8-foot cell with a bedroll and a bucket, embodying the wall-less captivity of a majority of his countrymen. But his historical place was secured during the four troubled years between his release in February 1990 and his inauguration as president in May 1994.
In this period, South Africa stared into an abyss. Violence among various white and black factions threatened to overwhelm constitutional negotiations. Mandela accused security forces of ignoring or inciting the bloody feud between the African National Congress (ANC) and its Inkatha rival. Political talks with the government eventually broke down. At ANC rallies, signs appeared reading, "Mandela, give us guns" and "Victory through battle not talk."
Then in April 1993, Mandela's friend and possible successor, Chris Hani, was assassinated in front of his home by a white supremacist. The nation, Mandela later recalled, was on the verge of a "race war."
Seldom has the contingent nature of history, or the decisive role of a leader within it, been more evident. The wrong word would have set spark to tinder. Instead, Mandela urged his followers to be a "disciplined force for peace."
"Tonight," he said, "I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. ... Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for — the freedom of all of us."
The old South Africa, founded on bigotry and oppression, offered plenty of excuses for retribution. Because of Mandela, a new South Africa was conceived in magnanimity.
Mandela is sometimes compared to Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. Such well-meaning praise encourages a misunderstanding of Mandela's accomplishment. After employing nonviolent tactics in the 1950s, he became an early ANC advocate of "armed struggle" and was the first commander of its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, the Spear of the Nation. (He received guerrilla training in Morocco from Algerian fighters.)
At the time of his greatest influence in the 1990s, Mandela was not a holy man pleading for peace. He was a warrior calling for reconciliation. Having resisted his oppressors, he had the standing to engage them. It was a role that invites comparison to Anwar Sadat or Menachem Begin, or even to Abraham Lincoln.
He was also, of course, modern South Africa's George Washington, its first citizen. Post-colonial nations are blessed or cursed by their founding presidents. Across the border in Zimbabwe, that nation's Washington turned out to be a petty, corrupt, vengeful despot. Mandela, in contrast, honored constitutional procedures, respected minority rights and instilled democratic habits.
And while not a religious leader, he exercised a form of spiritual leadership. He took a leap of faith to trust the representatives of a police state. He displayed the grace that was necessary to break a chain of violence. And he understood the enormous power of a blow unstruck.
Historians have excavated the biographical layers that produced such leadership. From the tribal court — his father was the counselor to a Thembu chief — Mandela gained a dignity and self-confidence that can only be called aristocratic. From missionary schools, he seemed to absorb Victorian lessons of fair play and respect for law. One Mandela biographer, Tom Lodge, argues that this background produced "a politics of grace and honor that, notwithstanding its conservatism, was probably the only politics that could have enabled South Africa's relatively peaceful transition to democracy."
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.