History | July 18, 2018 5:00 am

Nelson Mandela’s Legacy at 100

How the man who transformed South Africa continues to inspire dreams of peaceful change.

Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie raise fists upon Mandela's release from Victor Verster prison on February 11, 1990 in Paarl. (ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie raise fists upon Mandela's release from Victor Verster prison on February 11, 1990 in Paarl. (ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

“In my country we go to prison first and then become President.”

-Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in the village of Mvezo. He died in the metropolis of Johannesburg on December 5, 2013. During the 95 years between those events, he lived a life without parallel. (To put it in American terms, he was a combination of Martin Luther King, George Washington, and John McCain.) Mandela reshaped South Africa to an astounding degree, but his influence refused to be limited to a single nation or continent.

To get a sense of how Nelson Mandela’s example continues to resonate, I wanted to speak to someone else who worked to change their homeland and had suffered for those efforts, perhaps even being imprisoned.

Then I realized: That’s my father-in-law.

The island of Taiwan is 7,000 miles away from South Africa. Distant as those places are from each other, there is a definite parallel in their histories—both had outsiders arrive and deny rights to the people already there. South Africa, of course, suffered decades of apartheid as the white minority desperately clung to power. When the Communists took over China in 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his defeated Nationalists fled to Taiwan and seized control. They imposed martial law for the next 38 years, only lifting the “White Terror” in 1987.

Tsay Ting-kuei has long tried to help natives of Taiwan get a greater say in their government, often organizing political protests. While he has not suffered the way Mandela did, he did spend a month in jail—technically not for protesting but for “blocking the execution of a policeman’s job.” (During those weeks, he spent 23-and-a-half hours alone in his cell each day.)

Here’s how Mandela’s example drives Tsay, as well as one area where they differ.

Change Without Casualties

Tsay is a firm believer in peaceful protests, finding inspiration in Gandhi, MLK, Thoreau, and a much earlier figure: “Nonviolent struggle started originally with Jesus Christ.” Tsay often looks to the work of the writer and political scientist Dr. Gene Sharp, whose books include From Dictatorship to Democracy and The Politics of Nonviolent Action series. He says Sharp recognized that “nonviolent struggle will take a long time, but not necessarily longer than violent struggle.” (If a dictator is violently overthrown only to be replaced with another dictator, what’s actually been achieved?)

Mandela embodies how nonviolent change can do the seemingly impossible. After all, he served 27 years in prison. When he first arrived at Robben Island, he and his fellow African National Congress members were told: “This is the Island. This is where you will die.”

Yet Mandela outlived apartheid. Finally released in 1990, he was elected President of South Africa in 1994.

Tsay feels Mandela proves that “to make a movement successful, the violent struggle is not necessarily the best one.” He notes that when we think of Mandela, we now think of nonviolence, even though Mandela was hardly a pacifist all his life.

Indeed, the day after Mandela’s death, the Los Angeles Times ran an article titled “Nelson Mandela’s legacy: As a leader, he was willing to use violence.” Faced with the brutality of South Africa’s government—notably the 1960 Massacre in Sharpeville when police opened fire on an unarmed crowd, killing 69 and wounding another 180—he abandoned his stance of nonviolence.

In 1985, Mandela was offered a pardon if he would renounce violence. He refused, arguing the government needed to end apartheid first. It kept him in prison for another five years. (Much as John McCain rejected a personal release during the Vietnam War—McCain declined because he knew another American had been held longer by the Vietnamese and refused to let his status as the son of an admiral entitle him to special privileges.)

Mandela was finally freed without conditions when he was 71. He was nearly 76 when he assumed the presidency in 1994. Remarkable as his surviving imprisonment for 27 years might be, this new chapter of Nelson Mandela’s life was even more extraordinary.

Power and Principle

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi spent roughly two decades as a political prisoner for her support of democracy in Myanmar. Finally freed by the military, she rose to become the nation’s de facto leader. With her background, one wouldn’t expect her to stand for ethnic cleansing. Yet that is just what has occurred as the military cracks down on Rohingya Muslims.

Tsay says even if Suu Kyi doesn’t openly support these attacks, she has “at least tolerated it.” It’s a stark reminder of how “once you get power, you might change.”

It would be understandable if, having at last achieved his freedom, Mandela had desired some measure of revenge. Yet he was remarkably free of bitterness, quipping, “I went for a long holiday for 27 years.”

Like America’s first president George Washington, Nelson Mandela took office at a time of great potential and great risk. And like Washington, Mandela ensured his country would survive. He consciously strove to be a leader for the entire nation. Following his election, Mandela declared, “My fellow South Africans, today we are entering a new era for our country and its people. Today we celebrate not the victory of a party, but a victory for all the people of South Africa.” He worked to move the nation out of the darkness of the past (“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner”) and did his best to connect with those who once oppressed him (“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”).

The result was a remarkably peaceful transition. Mandela achieved almost mythic status among South Africans of all races. (When the white South African golf legend Gary Player first met Mandela, he was so overwhelmed he literally kissed Mandela’s feet: “I said, ‘I have never kissed anybody’s feet in my life.’”) Having given his nation a surprising amount of stability, Mandela again matched Washington’s example by willingly giving up the presidency and establishing the precedent for a peaceful transition of power.

Even as Mandela strove to move into retirement, he gracefully bore the burden that came with his worldwide renown. Shortly before South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup, Mandela’s great-granddaughter died in a car accident. Family members told the press that Mandela wanted to be left alone to mourn and they were outraged when FIFA allegedly put pressure on him to attend the Final.

Did Mandela attend? Of course, he did. It was a remarkable moment, as moving as Muhammad Ali lighting the Olympic torch in 1996.

Whether or not this appearance was a reasonable demand on a grieving man on the verge of turning 92, Nelson Mandela graciously rose to the occasion yet again.

The Lasting Lessons

Tsay believes that in Taiwan (as in most of the planet) “people admire Nelson in the way he was put in jail and endured for such a long time and in the end, he succeeded.” They don’t care about the parts of his life that involved “violent struggle”—Mandela transcended violence and in the process became an icon on the level of “Gandhi, Martin Luther King.”

(While it’s easy to mythologize fiery young rebels—think Che Guevara—that phase of Mandela’s life is overshadowed by the dignified yet warmly inviting old man he became, captivating the world.)

Tsay feels Mandela’s ultimate triumph is a reminder that patience combined with persistence is essential to a true revolution. He says that when conflicts devolve into open warfare, invariably the true losers are the people just trying to live their lives who get caught in the middle: “If you want to fight against the oppressor, don’t put the burden on the general population.”

While the Internet has been used to spread hate and disinformation, Tsay thinks it can also help people discover the effectiveness of nonviolence: “I’m optimistic.”

Below, a moment reflecting just how thoroughly the world can change, as the Queen of England happily greets a former prisoner from Africa.