Coming to Political Power Late [...]; Nelson Mandela Is South Africa's George Washington and a World Leader Who Now 'Belongs to the Ages', According to Leading Presidential Historian Jon Roper

Article excerpt

Byline: Jon Roper

Coming to political power late in his life, Mandela set others an example through the responsible way in which he used it. Like Washington too, he knew when to leave the political arena... COURAGE, as John F Kennedy was fond of reminding us, is grace under pressure. Nelson Mandela was graceful, as well as compassionate and humane. In 1990, he re-introduced himself to a global TV audience who watched the historic moment of his release after 27 years in prison. He rapidly became one of the most feted political leaders in the world. Presidents and prime ministers, film and rock stars tripped over themselves to visit him and to bask in the aura of his celebrity.

In July 1964, less than a month after a South African court had sentenced Mandela to life imprisonment, the United States Congress, coerced and cajoled by President Lyndon Johnson, passed the Civil Rights Act. It marked a critical step forward in dismantling the institutionalised system of racial apartheid - the so-called "Jim Crow" laws - that had disfigured America's southern states for the century that followed the end of the Civil War. The Pretoria regime was isolated. Apartheid would endure in South Africa for almost another three decades, during which international opposition to it made the country's most famous prisoner a worldwide symbol of resistance.

His release came three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the event that marked the end of the Cold War and ushered in a new era in international relations. The "winds of change", as British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had famously called them in his Cape Town speech in 1960, blew in Eastern Europe and also in Africa. South Africa's transition to democracy became another step on the Long Walk to Freedom (the title Mandela would give to his autobiography). In 1994 he was inaugurated as the first president of the new South African republic. For his fellow citizens he was a latter day George Washington: "the father of the nation".

Already a global icon, as president, Mandela was held often in higher regard than contemporary leaders of the world's most powerful nations, not least in the United States. He became the political and also the personal confidante of American presidents. According to Bill Clinton, whose time in the White House ran more or less concurrently with Mandela's term of office, it was the South African president's advice that helped save his marriage at the time of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. In 2009, Clinton voiced his support for an international "Mandela Day" to honour his achievements. Mandela, said the former American president, had been "the great inspiration for the life I lead and the work I do". …