He had predecessors who accomplished what he did. But both Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated in their quests for justice through nonviolent means.
Nelson Mandela, though, despite contracting tuberculosis during his 27 years of incarceration in South African prisons, earlier this month essentially died of old age at 95. His legacy of transforming his homeland from apartheid to racial cooperation is one of the greatest success stories of all time.
Mandela was born into royalty in South Africa. But during his formative years, the policy of racial apartheid had taken hold in a land where fear and suspicion governed relations between the native peoples and European-descended colonials.
At the outset Mandela was committed to nonviolent protest against colonial policies. But as he allied with others against injustice, the African National Congress was born, in part feeding off the communist movement with cries for greater militance in achieving the goals. His critics denounced him as a Marxist terrorist.
Convicted of various charges including treason, Mandela received a life sentence. He served 27 years in solitary confinement, most of it on the notorious Robben Island. Eventually, amid a time of rising civil strife and escalating world opinion, Mandela was released from prison in 1990.
Such a fate would have embittered most human beings. Indeed, before his incarceration, Mandela had expressed the feeling that his long-held goals would never be achieved by nonviolent means alone.
Fortunately for South Africa and the world, Mandela chose the high road. Rejoining the ANC, he entered negotiations with South African President F.W. de Klerk that resulted in the abolishing of apartheid and the establishing of multiracial elections in 1994.
The worst fears of a changing system were allayed. That can be attributed to Mandela himself, who led the ANC to victory, promulgated a new constitution and brought both sides together in a united South Africa, inviting several other political parties to join the cabinet. Instead of retribution, he promoted togetherness.