I was honored to be the first American President to welcome Mr. Mandela to the White House. It remains a genuine highlight from those four years I was privileged to hold that high office. Together with Poland's Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia's Vaclav Havel, I viewed Nelson Mandela as one of the great moral leaders during that hopeful and transformative era of global change.
Early in 1990, after President de Klerk announced his intention to release Mr. Mandela -- who was then the African National Congress leader -- I publicly welcomed the news as it was another significant step on the road to the nonracial, democratic South Africa we all desired.
Following his 27 years of wrongful imprisonment, it would have been understandable if Mr. Mandela had harbored and expressed more animosity -- more bitterness -- towards his political adversaries. That he didn't is one of the more remarkable examples of grace and dignity I have ever witnessed. More than that, it showed Nelson Mandela's true wisdom and, indeed, his genuine devotion to the cause of all his countrymen that he did not indulge whatever personal emotions he may have felt in private.
Nelson Mandela knew that the progress for which he had long fought and suffered would be tougher to achieve had he contributed to a climate of division and recrimination.
In our meetings at the White House, on June 25, 1990, we talked about the future of South Africa -- and how the United States could contribute towards the positive change we were already seeing. We talked about how we shared the goal of true democracy and dismantling, once and for all, the vestiges of apartheid -- a system that based the rights and freedoms of citizenship on the color of one's skin.
It was a time of transition for South Africa, and political change breeds both optimism and uncertainty. To their credit, President de Klerk and the Government of South Africa had taken concrete steps to expand the rights and freedoms of all South Africans. In order for that progress to continue, however, it was imperative that all elements in South African society renounced the use of violence in armed struggle -- to break free from the cycle of repression and violent reaction that had bred little more than fear and suffering.
It took genuine leadership for the political leaders in South Africa to compromise and show restraint. No one better embodied this spirit than Nelson Mandela.
With the United States offering help and encouragement, five critical developments took place in South Africa in a relatively short period of time: the repeal of apartheid laws on racial segregation, the lifting of a national state of emergency, the legalization of political parties, the initiation of good-faith negotiations toward a non-racial government, and finally, the release of all political prisoners.
Looking back, it is plain to see that it would have been impossible to achieve not only these policy objectives -- but also the larger ambition of a truly free and democratic South Africa -- without the moral leadership, courage and vision of Nelson Mandela.
This post is part of a series marking the theatrical release of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a new film starring Idris Elba and based on South African President Nelson Mandela's autobiography of the same name. Film opens in select theaters November 29. View the full series of celebrity tributes at www.aol.com/mandela and learn more about the film at www.mandelafilm.com.