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A hero among us

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Like those of many other extraordinary people, Nelson Mandela’s life was filled with contradictions.

He was born into royalty yet struggled against oppression most of his life. He was imprisoned as one of South Africa’s worst outlaws but rose to become the nation’s most renowned president. He used his skills as a statesman to curtail the urge to the kind of violence he had engaged in as a revolutionary years earlier.

When he died Thursday at the age of 95, Mr. Mandela had left a legacy of dignity that is difficult to fathom. The remarkable achievements he helped bring about not only altered the course of history in South Africa but made an indelible impression on the rest of the world.

Born in 1918, Mr. Mandela’s first name was actually Rolihlahla. In the Xhosa language, this translates into “troublemaker.”

And this label would prove to be prophetic. Mr. Mandela became trouble for the racist government that enforced apartheid. Involving himself with the African National Congress, he dedicated his life to destroying the tyrannical system that enslaved black South Africans.

The prison bars that confined Mr. Mandela for 27 years could not lessen his influence on his followers both young and old. Toward the end of his sentence, he began successfully negotiating for the release of other prisoners.

Then rumors started spreading in the late 1980s that the government was preparing to set Mr. Mandela free. Millions around the world watched in awe as he walked out of confinement in February 1990 and ventured into the future as a free man.

Mr. Mandela then spent the next few years working with South African government officials on a transition from apartheid to democracy. He was elected president in 1994 and served one term, until 1999.

“Great anger and violence can never build a nation,” Mr. Mandela told the European Parliament in 1990. “We are striving to proceed in a manner and towards a result, which will ensure that all our people, both black and white, emerge as victors.”

And he made good on his word. He helped establish the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which allowed people to talk about the brutality they were subjected to and offered a path to forgiveness. This process healed the wounds of many people and turned the nation away from revenge and further bloodshed.

On rare occasions, we are blessed to live among people who come to represent the conscience of humanity. For all too many of them, the hatred they confront cuts their lives short.

But Mr. Mandela defied all the odds stacked against him and served out his mission to its completion. There are no doubt many goals he believed remained unfulfilled, but these tasks now fall upon us to carry out.

In his lifelong quest for justice, he gave us everything possible to understand its foundation: None of us should feel satisfied with our own lives if there are other people around us in need. Imagine how many lives would be enhanced if we followed his example of empathy and compassion.

Mr. Mandela certainly didn’t accomplish these great things on his own. Numerous other brave souls took up the fight alongside him.

But he provided the very qualities needed to lead this campaign for righteousness: a clarity of purpose, the courage of his convictions and the wisdom of experience. Mr. Mandela envisioned a South Africa where equality reigned supreme, and he helped make this a reality. What a wonderful gift that we could watch his dream unfold before our eyes.

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