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Theana Calitz, Associated Press
Former South African President Nelson Mandela reacts at the Mandela foundation, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Tuesday June 2, 2009, during a meeting with a group of American and South African students as part of a series of activities leading to Mandela Day on July 18th.

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” — Mahatma Gandhi

Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday, changed the course of history. His unquenchable faith was in the cause of freedom, and his mission was to ensure the freedom won by his people would live on. That will be his legacy.

He understood that freedom is not a tradable commodity, but a state of being that exists or doesn’t. “There is no such thing as part freedom,” he said.

He knew that to achieve justice for his beloved South Africa, it would come only through finding common ground with those who opposed his mission. “If you want to make peace with your enemy,” he said, “you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

He knew that freedom for his people would not last if it meant the loss of freedom for others. “For to be free,” he said, “is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that enhances and respects the freedom of others.”

Nelson Mandela cast off the chains of oppression after 27 years of incarceration as a political prisoner. He rose to the presidency of his nation, formed a united government, established a new constitution and brought reforms that ended a tradition of tyranny and subjugation.

His mission was one of reconciliation, not retribution. “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa,” he said, “there are also roads that lead to that goal. Two of those roads could be named Goodness and Forgiveness.”

He did not retreat from that path. “Our human compassion binds us one to the other — not in pity or patronizingly,” he said, “but as human beings who have learned how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

He fought ignorance as the enemy of human rights, working to bring educational opportunities to the most impoverished of his people. “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world,” he said.

He often said he did not set out to change the world, but only to help the forces of history unfold. “I was not a messiah,” he said, “but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.”

But the nature of his leadership was extraordinary, the spirit of which seems to be sorely missing among many of today’s political leaders.

Nelson Mandela owned an instinctive awareness that the essence of leadership is not to command, but to form a common path toward a common purpose. “A good leader,” he said, “can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end, he and the other side must be closer, and thus emerge stronger. You don’t have that idea when you are arrogant, superficial, and uninformed.”