Nelson Mandela, friend and practitioner of the art of forgiving, died today at the age of 95.
In 1990 Mandela emerged from prison after serving almost three decades of a life sentence to lay the groundwork for the first multiracial democracy in South Africa’s history. Elected as President in 1994, Mandela guided the nation out of the dark night of apartheid’s brutal and racist reign by the moral power of a heart committed to truth, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s current President, announced the news in the middle of the night — late afternoon in Pennsylvania. He said, “our nation has lost its greatest son; our people have lost a father.”
With Mandela’s strong support, the South African national legislature passed the Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act in 1995, which established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to help the nation deal with what happened during the apartheid regime. The TRC held public meetings throughout the nation, allowing victims and perpetrators alike the opportunity to tell the truth about what happened. Many blacks told gut wrenching stories of the violence visited on their families and communities. Very few whites confessed to their role in perpetrating the violence. The TRC had the power to grant amnesty to perpetrators of violence, both black and white. The conditions were strict; more blacks than whites were granted amnesty for their crimes during the years of apartheid.
The TRC made a critically important contribution to South Africa’s remarkably peaceful emergence from apartheid and the establishment of a multiracial democracy. As one of the first national efforts at restorative justice, the TRC became a model for other nations’ attempts to emerge from times of ethnic violence.
In our time, Nelson Mandela has been one of justice’s greatest advocates. So, too, will his name rightly be linked to the word “forgiveness.” It was, for him, more than an idea that had merit for individuals. He saw its power to save and shape a nation. The reality of forgiveness in Nelson Mandela seems, to me, to be forever captured in his brilliant and engaging smile. More even than his words, Mandela’s broad and genuine smile speaks to the life-changing power of forgiveness.