Nelson Mandela, one of the towering figures of the 20th century, and the liberator of South Africa from apartheid, died today–Dec. 5–at 8:50 p.m. in Johannesburg. He was 95. He spent 27 years in prison, 18 of them on bleak Robben Island, for organizing an armed struggle against apartheid, before his release at age 71. He won the Nobel Prize for peace in 1993. He was elected South Africa’s first black president in 1994. He retired in 1999. Below are texts from his own pen, which speak more eloquently than obituaries about his vision for a world of equality, human rights and dignity unobscured by illusions.
From 1999: Forgive, but Do Not Forget
The experience of others has taught us that nations that do not deal with the past are haunted by it for generations.
The quest for reconciliation was the fundamental objective of our struggle to set up a government based on the will of the people and to build a South Africa that belongs to all. The quest for reconciliation was the spur that gave impetus to our difficult negotiations over the transition from apartheid and the agreements that emerged from it.
The desire to attain a nation at peace with itself is the primary motivation for our Reconstruction and Development Program. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which operated from 1995 to 1998, was an important component of that process as well. The group uncovered crimes committed during the apartheid era and could choose to provide amnesty to those who confessed. Its work was a critical milestone in a journey that has just started.
The path toward reconciliation touches upon every facet of our lives. Reconciliation requires the dismantling of apartheid and the measures that reinforced it. It requires that we overcome the consequences of that inhuman system that lives on in our attitudes toward one another as well as in the poverty and inequality that affect the lives of millions.
Just as we reached out across the divisions of centuries to establish democracy, South Africans need now to work together to overcome the divisions themselves and eradicate their consequences.
Reconciliation is central to the vision that moved millions of men and women to risk all, including their lives, in the struggle against apartheid and white domination. It is inseparable from the achievement of a nonracial, democratic and united nation that affords common citizenship, rights and obligations to each and every person, while it respects the rich diversity of our people.
I think of those whom apartheid sought to imprison in the jails of hate and fear. I think, too, of those it infused with a false sense of superiority to justify their inhumanity to others, as well as those it conscripted into the machines of destruction, exacting a heavy toll among them in life and limb and giving them a warped disregard for life.
I think of the millions of South Africans who still live in poverty because of apartheid — disadvantaged and excluded from opportunity by the discrimination of the past.
South Africans must recall the terrible past so that we can deal with it, forgiving where forgiveness is necessary but never forgetting. By remembering, we can ensure that never again will such inhumanity tear us apart, and we can eradicate a dangerous legacy that still lurks as a threat to our democracy.
It was inevitable that a task of such magnitude, begun so recently and requiring a process that will take many years to complete, would suffer various limitations. Its ultimate success will depend on all sectors of our society recognizing with the world that apartheid was a crime against humanity and that its vile deeds transcended our borders and sowed the seeds of destruction — producing a harvest of hate that we reap even today. About this there can be no equivocation: Recognizing apartheid’s evil lies at the heart of the new constitution of our democracy.
We South Africans draw pride from the new constitution and from the openness and accountability that have become trademarks of our society. And we should recommit ourselves to these values and to practical action that promotes our view that a strong human-rights culture is rooted in the material conditions of our lives. None of us can enjoy lasting peace and security while a part of our nation lives in poverty.
No one should underestimate the difficulties of integrating into our society those who have committed gross violations of human rights and those convicted of being informers and collaborators. But there are also many encouraging examples of great generosity and nobility on the part of many magnanimous members of our community. Their deeds are a reproach to those who sought amnesty without remorse and an inspiration to others pursuing the difficult, sensitive task of re-integration.
The best reparation for the suffering of victims and communities — and the highest recognition of their efforts — is the transformation of our society into one that makes a living reality of the human rights for which they struggled. This, concretely, is what it means to forgive, but not forget.
The Nobel Lecture (Exceprts, 1993)
t will not be presumptuous of us if we also add, among our predecessors, the name of another outstanding Nobel Peace Prize winner, the late Rev Martin Luther King Jr.
He, too, grappled with and died in the effort to make a contribution to the just solution of the same great issues of the day which we have had to face as South Africans.
We speak here of the challenge of the dichotomies of war and peace, violence and non-violence, racism and human dignity, oppression and repression and liberty and human rights, poverty and freedom from want.
We stand here today as nothing more than a representative of the millions of our people who dared to rise up against a social system whose very essence is war, violence, racism, oppression, repression and the impoverishment of an entire people.
I am also here today as a representative of the millions of people across the globe, the anti-apartheid movement, the governments and organisations that joined with us, not to fight against South Africa as a country or any of its peoples, but to oppose an inhuman system and sue for a speedy end to the apartheid crime against humanity.
These countless human beings, both inside and outside our country, had the nobility of spirit to stand in the path of tyranny and injustice, without seeking selfish gain. They recognised that an injury to one is an injury to all and therefore acted together in defense of justice and a common human decency.
Because of their courage and persistence for many years, we can, today, even set the dates when all humanity will join together to celebrate one of the outstanding human victories of our century. […]
The value of our shared reward will and must be measured by the joyful peace which will triumph, because the common humanity that bonds both black and white into one human race, will have said to each one of us that we shall all live like the children of paradise.
Thus shall we live, because we will have created a society which recognises that all people are born equal, with each entitled in equal measure to life, liberty, prosperity, human rights and good governance.
Such a society should never allow again that there should be prisoners of conscience nor that any person’s human right should be violated.
Neither should it ever happen that once more the avenues to peaceful change are blocked by usurpers who seek to take power away from the people, in pursuit of their own, ignoble purposes.
[…] We live with the hope that as she battles to remake herself, South Africa, will be like a microcosm of the new world that is striving to be born.
This must be a world of democracy and respect for human rights, a world freed from the horrors of poverty, hunger, deprivation and ignorance, relieved of the threat and the scourge of civil wars and external aggression and unburdened of the great tragedy of millions forced to become refugees.
The processes in which South Africa and Southern Africa as a whole are engaged, beckon and urge us all that we take this tide at the flood and make of this region as a living example of what all people of conscience would like the world to be.
We do not believe that this Nobel Peace Prize is intended as a commendation for matters that have happened and passed.
We hear the voices which say that it is an appeal from all those, throughout the universe, who sought an end to the system of apartheid.
We understand their call, that we devote what remains of our lives to the use of our country’s unique and painful experience to demonstrate, in practice, that the normal condition for human existence is democracy, justice, peace, non-racism, non-sexism, prosperity for everybody, a healthy environment and equality and solidarity among the peoples.
Moved by that appeal and inspired by the eminence you have thrust upon us, we undertake that we too will do what we can to contribute to the renewal of our world so that none should, in future, be described as the “wretched of the earth”.3
Let it never be said by future generations that indifference, cynicism or selfishness made us fail to live up to the ideals of humanism which the Nobel Peace Prize encapsulates.
Let the strivings of us all, prove Martin Luther King Jr. to have been correct, when he said that humanity can no longer be tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war.
Let the efforts of us all, prove that he was not a mere dreamer when he spoke of the beauty of genuine brotherhood and peace being more precious than diamonds or silver or gold.
Let a new age dawn!