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Mohamed A. El-Erian Headshot

The World Wishes Mandela Well and Needs Him

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Count me among the many who were extremely worried upon hearing this weekend that Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, had been taken to the hospital. He may no longer be leading his nation yet, even at 93, he remains an unmatched inspiration for a world going through profound changes.

Like millions around the world, I have admired Mr. Mandela for several decades. Rarely does a human being show the spirit, commitment, and humility that have characterized Mr. Mandela's years as an activist, a freedom fighter, a reconciler, a unifier, a leader, and a global icon.

As a child, I eagerly read anything I could find on Mr. Mandela. As a university student, I participated in anti-apartheid initiatives and protests. As a working adult, I remember vividly the day in 1990 when the world celebrated his release from prison, followed in 1994 by his euphoric election to the presidency.

Over these many years, I have felt nothing but admiration and awe for how Mr. Mandela -- and against seemingly overwhelming odds -- led a deeply divided nation away from civil war and towards a truly multi-racial democracy. Yet none of this prepared me for listening to this great man in person.

Some ten years ago, I had the privilege of being part of a group that met with Mr. Mandela in South Africa shortly after he had stepped down from the presidency. We had an amazing opportunity to listen to him speak, followed by a question and answer session.

Mr. Mandela was superb. His speech was moving and visionary. He patiently answered every one of our questions. And, throughout the meeting, he never showed the sort of impatience and hubris that other prominent personalities often fall victim to.

We wanted to know about his long incarceration on Robben Island (18 of his 27 years in prison). We were saddened to hear that his terrible ordeal had included systematic attempts by the authorities to rob him of his personality, dignity and aspirations. All this led us to wonder even more how a man that had suffered so much under apartheid had managed to overcome all his personal anger and lead a united nation in such an encompassing manner.

His responses included a simple, often-repeated yet incredibly powerful statement: "I learnt to forgive but not forget."

Forgiving but not forgetting was, in the particular case of South Africa, key to Mr. Mandela's incredible success in leading his country through the critical national pivot that has tripped so many revolutions and revolutionaries -- that of rotating away from dismantling a terrible past and towards building a promising future.

The world needs many more leaders like Nelson Mandela. And while the particular challenges vary from country to country, all would benefit from the talent, dedication and trustworthiness of a national Mandela.

Think of the Middle East where country after country is seeing youth-inspired uprisings bravely challenge and, in a growing number of instances, overcome years of dictatorship -- in some cases peacefully and in others at a horrid human cost. Regrettably, none of these countries have been able as of yet to converge on a leader of the caliber and credibility of Mr. Mandela to lead the post revolutionary era, thus complicating the pivot from the past to the future.

Mr. Mandela's example is also relevant for the advanced countries that find themselves marred in a quagmire of anemic economic growth, high unemployment, rising debt, and excessive income and wealth inequality.

They need to leave behind the era of leverage, credit-entitlement and crony capitalism and reform their way to more inclusive and sustainable growth, job creation and social justice.

Nelson Mandela remains an important inspiration for our world. Millions more would benefit from his enormous skills, unmatched experience and unquestioned determination ... provided we all keep him both as a source of constant inspiration and as the living embodiment of the greater good that truly committed and encompassing human beings are capable of.

Mr. Mandela, we wish you a quick and full recovery. You have materially improved the well-being of millions both in South Africa and well beyond; and you continue to be a beacon for the many who battle daily for a better and more just world.