Mandela Belongs to the World

12/06/2013 12:45 pm ET | Updated Feb 05, 2014

TORONTO -- Martin Luther King Jr. once said: "If a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live." Nelson Mandela was a man who cherished the ideal of a free society all his life, an ideal that, as he proclaimed at his trial in Pretoria in April 1964, he hoped to live for, but if need be, die for.

He has now died as he had always lived, a free spirit. Mandela was neither a commander of great armies nor an emperor of vast lands. He could boast no scientific achievements or artistic gifts. Yet men, women and children from all over the world join hands to pay homage to this brave man who led his country to democracy.

The death of Nelson Mandela signals the end of an era, not only for South Africa but for the whole world.

However, the late president of South Africa leaves behind a multiple legacy. Mandela is revered around the world as a global symbol of nonviolence and peace. His principles on reconciliation and non-retributive justice are a great source of inspiration for human rights activists and freedom fighters around the world.

His philosophy of forgiveness can be best utilized for future nonviolent transitions in countries like Iran and Syria.

Mandela's genius was his ability to convince his black and white countrymen to accept to share a future together while turning the page on the tragic past during the apartheid regime. This combination of compassion and pragmatism is so rarely found among world leaders. Mandela was charismatic through his strength of character, standing up for what he believed was right and fair, against authoritarian white rule of South Africa, and by the power of his humility and modesty.

Comparison with Mahatma Gandhi is inevitable, not only because Mandela said in an article in Time magazine in January 2000 that he was inspired by Gandhi, but because Gandhi lived and fought in South Africa from 1893 to 1914. Like Mandela half a century later, Gandhi was subjected to the racist behavior of the dominant white South African establishment and organized a nonviolent struggle for the rights of Indians in South Africa.

However, unlike Gandhi, Mandela held high public office, which brings different challenges. During his presidency, Mandela's vision of a new South Africa suggested a society in which blacks as well as whites would benefit from general welfare. Mandela's general goal was to construct and stabilize a multiracial democratic polity in a country where the white supremacist groups were able to promote black-on-black violence because of basic conflicts between the African National Congress and certain Zulu leaders.

Remarkably, in such a challenging setting, Mandela strengthened the social and political capabilities that he had honed during his early years as an ANC activist and later through self-discipline in prison. His brilliant stratagem to unite the country behind the South African national rugby team was a way to find a common ground between the fearful white minority and the non-white South Africans who considered the Springboks a symbol of apartheid.

Like Gandhi, Mandela served as a moral compass for his people, and unlike so many politicians and activists, he pointed the needle of that compass towards forgiveness. He used to say, "If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal. Two of these roads could be named goodness and forgiveness."

Mandela knew that if forgiveness was to have a meaning in South Africa, the victims and those guilty of cruelty and violence had to share a common language and a common understanding of the future. To construct such a language, he combined the powerful African tradition of Ubuntu, meaning "humanity to others," with the art of politics.

But Nelson Mandela stands out as one who had achieved the spirit of Ubuntu as the very path one must travel to know forgiveness and to empower others with it. For him this consciousness of Ubuntu was to emerge from 27 years of imprisonment, after which he declared: "As I walked out the door toward my freedom, I knew that if I did not leave all the anger, hatred and bitterness behind I would still be in prison."

This idea remains a difficult one for many of us around the world who continue to think of freedom and justice in terms of violence, revenge and retribution. As such, the triumphant expression of Mandela's life's work is not only in what he achieved in South Africa: the rule of law, freedom of speech, and free and fair elections. His triumph is in the imperishable lesson he holds for the ages to come: that of the seamless convergence of nonviolence and politics.

Nelson Mandela inspired the world with his faith in truth and justice for all mankind. His life was a message -- a message of nonviolence over power, of finding ways to reconcile our differences, and of living in harmony with respect and love even for our enemy. Today Mandela belongs not only to South Africa, but to the entire world.

(Ramin Jahanbegloo, the Iranian philosopher, dissident and advocate of nonviolence, lives in exile in Canada. Among other books, he is author of "Iran: Between Tradition and Modernity.")

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