Mandela's rainbow

May 11, 1994

Nelson Mandela made an eloquent plea for common humanity upon being inaugurated the first president of South Africa who was either black or the product of an election in which most of the adults of the country could vote. It was a worthy cap to his 75 years as campaigner for liberation.

But it was also a great occasion of state, watched by a dazzling array of international luminaries running the gamut from Prince Philip of Britain to Fidel Castro of Cuba, and including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Rep. Kweisi Mfume and NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Chavis of Baltimore.

"We shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity -- a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world," Mr. Mandela said.

Americans, many of whom in recent years have come to denigrate their own nation and its heritage, should hearken to Mr. Mandela's evocation of our Declaration of Independence with his talk of inalienable right. When he was trying to summon up the best values found in his society, they were also the best values found in ours.

In revolutions in other countries, a Nelson Mandela would want to put an F. W. de Klerk in jail, if only for retribution for his own long incarceration. The real Nelson Mandela rose above all that, and instead made Mr. de Klerk second deputy president. In other countries, the winning revolutionary might want to dismantle the military and security forces that for so long suppressed his movement. The real Mr. Mandela praised them, in his inaugural address, for making a success of the election that produced his presidency.

Nelson Mandela set a standard for leaders of other nations by rising above the impulse to get even -- with his eye, at age 75, set firmly on the future and the practical problems to be overcome in getting there. He tried to appeal to the best instincts of his followers and his former adversaries. So many political leaders these days address only the worst instincts of both.

It will be hard for even Nelson Mandela to live up to the elevated vision he offered. He must know that. And that's why it speaks so well of him to have established that exacting standard. It can only help to make South Africa a better country for all who live there.

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