OUR VIEW: Nelson Mandela fostered rights, democracy

fostered democracy, spirit of reconciliation in South Africa

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Nelson Mandela spent 27

years behind bars, yet managed to leave bitterness behind when his captivity ended.

He led a revolutionary movement against the forces who controlled his nation and dehumanized the vast majority of his countrymen, yet reached out to his former enemies when he found himself empowered to lead them.

He was hailed as a modern-day savior in South Africa and basked in the adulation of international celebrity, yet stepped aside after only a single term as his nation's president.

The humanity, dignity and grace that Nelson Mandela radiated complemented the incredible strength, forbearance -- and in his most triumphant moments, spirit of reconciliation -- that made him an inspiration for millions. His death, at the age of 95, marks the final chapter of his mortal existence but his legacy as a force for human rights and justice will be an enduring one.

The son of an African chieftain, Mandela came of age in a society in which a white ruling minority systematically stripped non-whites of human rights, regulating how and where they lived, limiting their opportunity for economic advancement and rendering them politically powerless. The imposition of apartheid deprived them of citizenship and relegated them to life in squalid, racially segregated "homelands" and townships.

Mandela rose to leadership in the African National Congress, the voice of resistance to apartheid, and resorted to violence to oppose it when peaceful methods proved ineffectual. His involvement with the ANC eventually led to a sentence of life in prison in 1964 after he was convicted of leading a campaign of sabotage against the government.

He lived for years in isolation but became a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement. His release in 1990, which millions around the world witnessed, set the stage for his remarkable assumption of power as South Africa's elected president four years later. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with his predecessor, F.W. deKlerk, the last apartheid president.

The world watched as he led South Africans of all races in reshaping their nation in a non-violent revolution. While he fell short of his goals in creating what he called "the Rainbow Nation" -- poverty and unemployment continue to plague South Africa -- he succeeded in empowering people who had been denied not only political rights but a sense of humanity. And, when his term was over, he ensured a peaceful, democratic transition of power.

Nelson Mandela was a complex man who combined power and grace, determination and humor, charismatic leadership and humility. He captured the attention of the world and the hearts of millions.

In his autobiography, he likened a tribal chief to a shepherd. "He stays behind the flock," he wrote, "letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind."

As South Africa's transformational president, Mandela recognized the value of leading from behind, manifesting a sense of humanity that fostered tolerance and understanding in a nation undergoing enormous changes. The example he set was extraordinary. His death marks the passing of a giant of modern history.

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