12/06/2013 01:57 pm ET Updated Feb 05, 2014

The Dignity of Man: A South African Rabbi Remembers Nelson Mandela

There is nothing more pathetic than a bitter man. Eaten up inside, spewing venom on the outside, such people live for what or whom they stand against, not what they stand for. They are vengeful and, given power, often aggressive and cruel.

If there was anyone who deserved to be bitter, it was Nelson Mandela. He was born in 1918 into a South Africa ruled by the British, and by the age of 22 had already earned his first expulsion, from the (all-black) University of Fort Hare, for leading a student strike. In 1964 he was to earn a life sentence (with six others) on Robben Island for treason. He was sent to that stark blotch of land that is clearly in view from Cape Town, a daily and scary message for all who would choose to take in that magnificent sweep of the sea. We knew he and his colleagues were there, year after year, but we dared not say anything. He could no longer be quoted. His photo could no longer be printed. He was to disappear.

How could we have known that this man used those "long, lonely, wasted years," (as he put them) to prepare himself for greatness by focusing on his own character? In prison, he stated, "You learn to look into yourself." Deprived of external accomplishments, you learn "to focus on internal ones; such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety."

Mandela sat there for 28 years, until he was 71 years old, turning down several compromise offers from the government that would have secured his release. We could have expected him to limp home, a broken and disheartened man, but he came out with dignity, with more than a whiff of royalty, tough, determined and calculating, but generous and humble, all in one.

On June 4, 1948, the Afrikaaner-controlled National Party began its 46-year rule of apartheid. This was the South Africa that I was born into. Every white, whether we liked it or not, became a part of a system that was to ensure that 20 percent of the country (the whites) would rule the other 80 percent (the blacks and two other racial categories -- the Coloureds and the Indians). We lived in the cities with our two servants, and they lived in their smog-filled townships of little hovels, unpaved and unlit roads -- or worse condemned to the "Homelands," where 13 percent of poor and fragmented land was to give each black tribe their "glorious" semi-independence.

The whites, in the main -- and this includes the Jews -- shut up. I remember as a college student tutoring blacks in English to get their matriculation. Black students often attended schools where one building had to divide its day into three different groups, sending each group home early, until economic realities drove these students out to earn a meager wage. As a Jew if felt I had to help. But I would also keep quiet.

I remember, as a student leader, berating the South African Jewish Board of Deputies for their silence on apartheid. But, I dared not take my message outside of the protected walls where I spoke. None of us did. The blacks would have to find their own leader.

In fact, he found them. Mandela fought back. At his treason trial, he stated:

"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

I believe that God causes certain great people to live in historic moments. Mandela, who was prepared to die, was in fact, allowed to live. And his timing was perfect.

Mandela's great partner was Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk, the Gorbachev of South Africa and Mandela's co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. De Klerk legalized the ANC in 1990, freeing Mandela, and setting the stage for the dismantling of the apartheid regime. We were all certain that the May 10, 1994 elections would see massive violence, but it never came.

The great, calming influence of that venerable man had seeped into the bones of the fiery black youth, and the new South Africa was born. "Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another" were Mandela's immortal words on that day. "Let freedom reign. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement! God bless Africa! Thank you."

To understand South Africa, one has to understand rugby. As a white, rugby was etched deeply into our national psyche. Only whites could play of course, but the (then) 4 million whites were enough to produce the world's best rugby team. And then, because of apartheid, we were kicked out of international sport. The last international game was against the French, on local soil. Playing on the French wing was Roger Bourgerelle, who was black, and played opposite the Springboks' only Jew, Syd Nomis. I remember thinking that the concession by the South Africans to allow Bourgerelle to play (the French wouldn't come otherwise) and be watched by millions of South Africans, was one of the first cracks in the apartheid regime.

Only if you understand that can you appreciate the scene on June 24, 1995, when Mandela, as president, strode onto the field at the Rugby World Cup final in Johannesburg, wearing "the green and gold" South African jersey and bringing 60,000 mainly white spectators to their feet. To the chants of "Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!" the president gave his congratulations to the winning Springbok team as if to say, "We are all one; rugby is owned by blacks as it is by whites; I am president of the whites as I am of the blacks. We are one nation."

American leaders are obsessed with their legacy. Second-term presidents make a mad dash to do something, anything, that will allow history to judge them favorably. Mandela never stooped to this. If he made history, it was as a healer of souls. As president, he was not a great administrator of projects. His greatness was the reconciliation he injected into a country that had been torn by racial divisions, a personal example of how our essential humanity ties us more than our differences separate us. God beckoned Nelson Mandela to make history -- Mandela heard the call, and stepped forward to change the destiny of a country, and of mankind.