The world's greatest leader

February 11, 2005|By Clarence Lusane

FIFTEEN YEARS ago today, the man known to the South African authorities as Prisoner 46664 was released from prison after 27 years behind bars.

To the rest of the world, Nelson Mandela was no number, but a symbol of the unyielding resistance of the South African people to the cruel system of apartheid. In one of the most-watched events ever, people all over the world cheered as Mr. Mandela walked out of prison.

Today, Mr. Mandela continues to tower above other world leaders. This is not only for his decades of sacrifice in the struggle against apartheid but also for his continued leadership on a wide range of issues confronting the global community. From East Africa to East Timor to the Middle East, Mr. Mandela has never hesitated to raise his voice and to use his considerable weight to bring progressive resolution to crises.

From the 1995 massacres in Rwanda to the crimes against humanity in Darfur, Sudan, from extreme poverty to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, year after year, Mr. Mandela has addressed them all.

Poverty is one of his chief concerns. "Like slavery and apartheid, poverty is not natural," Mr. Mandela said at a rally in London's Trafalgar Square recently. "It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings."

The HIV/AIDS crisis that is ravaging South Africa hit home when Mr. Mandela lost his son just last month. Makgatho Mandela, 54, died of AIDS-related complications in a Johannesburg clinic. But Mr. Mandela had advocated an open discussion and government attention to the issue long before he knew of his son's infection. On this issue, Mr. Mandela broke with his successor, current South African President Thabo Mbeki, who delayed for years acknowledging that the disease was wreaking social, economic and personal havoc on the country.

In the 15 years since Mr. Mandela left prison, much has changed in South Africa. The apartheid laws are gone and so is white domination of the political and economic decision-making processes. Mr. Mandela won a Nobel Peace Prize and, in 1994, became president in South Africa's first real democratic election. He served until 1999.

The world has changed too.

Now there is but one superpower. Mr. Mandela, who had a close relationship with President Bill Clinton, has been harshly critical of the Bush administration. In September 2002, he said, "The attitude of the United States is a threat to world peace."

Mr. Bush may not recognize it, but the long arc of history bends toward Mr. Mandela and his vision of a more equitable and just global community.

For the millions around the world who fought apartheid, Feb. 11, 1990, was a day of victory and hope in a battle that often appeared lost and hopeless.

Mr. Mandela's actions gave inspiration to others around the world also struggling for justice and liberation.

As Mr. Mandela said in his first words after leaving prison, "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve."

His passion for his ideal society appears to get only get stronger as time passes.

Clarence Lusane is an assistant professor in the school of international service at American University in Washington.

Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

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