Anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela arriving to address a mass rally, a few days after his release from jail, on Feb. 25 1990, in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Trevor Samson—AFP via Getty Images
Ideas
July 17, 2020 5:44 PM EDT

Stengel is the former Editor of TIME and an MSNBC analyst.

When Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president in South African history in 1994, the world looked like a very different place. His election was a symbol of a new birth of freedom around the world. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1991 and the end of the Cold War had helped spur a democratic revolution not only in South Africa but around the world. Between the start of the 1990s and 2005, the number of democracies on the planet increased from about a third of nations to nearly half. Mandela himself was a global icon not only of democracy but pluralism, and his triumph seemed to spell the end of an era of authoritarianism and ethnic nationalism.

Now, as we celebrate Mandela Day on July 18th—an international day of service—we are in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic, and democracy and pluralism are under attack in every region on earth. From Poland to Turkey, from Russia to Brazil, ethnic nationalism is ascendant, and authoritarian leaders and autocratic regimes are undermining the ability of people to vote, eroding the independence of judiciaries, curtailing freedom of speech and of the press. According to the non-profit Freedom House, we are in the 14th straight year of a global decline in freedom. In America, not only are we suffering from the pandemic, but there is a powerful national movement against racial and cultural inequities, while we have a president who is closer in spirit to the racist apartheid leaders whom we thought Mandela had consigned to the dustbin of history.

When I worked with Mandela on writing his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, I had a little mantra that I would say to myself: WWNMD? What Would Nelson Mandela Do? It’s an excellent guide to life, but not an easy one to live up to. Mandela never took the path of least resistance. Yes, he would compromise, but he wouldn’t compromise on his core principle which was achieving democracy for his people. Nelson Mandela was by nature an optimist, but he was as hard-headed as they come. He did not embrace the consoling view of history that, as Martin Luther King said (in a line often quoted by Barack Obama), “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” For him, justice was never inevitable. If the world was going to bend toward justice, he would have to do the bending himself.

Mandela never saw America as a shining city on a hill. In fact, the president who first used that phrase—Ronald Reagan—regarded Mandela as a terrorist and his government supported the South African apartheid regime during the Cold War. (Mandela was only officially removed from U.S. terrorist watch lists in 2008.) In his unpublished prison journal, written in the 1970s while he was on Robben Island, Mandela said that while he had American friends and supporters, “I hate all forms of imperialism and consider the U.S. brand the most loathsome and contemptible.” In our many hours of interviews for the book, Mandela told me how, when he was underground in the 1960s, he had sought help for his organization, the ANC, from the U.S. and other Western nations and was always rebuffed. He was well aware of reporting at the time that the CIA had tipped off South African police as to his whereabouts when he was underground. I remember when I was working with him in 1993 there was an evening event in Johannesburg celebrating the end of apartheid with then Vice President Al Gore as the guest of honor. Mandela smiled at me and said, “You Americans think you ended apartheid.”

Mandela admired Dr. King and followed the American civil rights movement closely. One enormous difference, which Mandela understood better than anyone, was that in South Africa, Black people were a repressed and disenfranchised majority, not a minority. Mandela welcomed the protests led by Dr. King as he would have the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Mandela organized and led many protest campaigns himself in the 1950s, but it was the Sharpeville demonstration in 1960, in which 69 Black protesters were shot to death by the white police that led him to part ways with Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence. Shortly after that demonstration, he journeyed down to Natal to meet with Chief Albert Luthuli, then the head of the African National Congress (ANC), to argue that the organization needed to embrace the armed struggle. “He, of course, opposed the decision,” Mandela told me, “because he was a man who believed in non-violence as principle. Whereas I believed in non-violence as a strategy, which could be changed at any time the conditions demanded it.”

For Mandela, freedom and democracy for his people were the single highest undeviating goal which justified the use of nearly any means to get there. When he visited the U.S. in 1990, shortly after his release but before he became president, he was asked over and over by the American press whether he would renounce violence in his struggle for freedom. He refused to do so. In Atlanta, he was greeted by a small crowd of protesting white supremacists and former members of the Ku Klux Klan. In his speech in Atlanta, he ended by saying, “Let freedom ring wherever the peoples’ rights are trampled upon.”

In 1995, President Mandela created the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was a public commission to look at the roots of apartheid and racial injustice. That was the Truth part. The Reconciliation part was that people could come forward and confess their crimes and receive amnesty. Many white policemen and security officials did so. The Commission electrified South Africa and became a vehicle for transcending the country’s deep divides. For Mandela, it confirmed his belief that forgiveness helps both the forgiven and the forgiver. Indeed, it was powerful to see the relatives of men and women who were murdered by the old apartheid government forgive their former oppressors.

A handful of American cities like Greensboro, N.C. have had local truth and reconciliation commissions, and now Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco are planning similar ones. A number of legislators, including Congresswoman Barbara Lee, California, have called for a national TRC to look at the history of slavery and discrimination. The South African example is a powerful precedent for America. A national Truth and Reconciliation Commission coupled with a serious look at the idea of reparations is a way to seek closure on a dreadful aspect of our history. As Mandela used to say, it’s never too late to do the right thing.

So many people over the years have said to me that it’s extraordinary that Mandela could forgive his own oppressors. I always smile to myself because I knew how deeply wounded he was by his own past and his suffering. But he understood that as a leader and symbol, he must always project forgiveness, and he never ever failed to do so. He understood that while it was impossible to truly forget the past, we must relinquish its hold over us.

In 1994, I remember driving with him to what would be his office in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, which had been the seat of the old apartheid government. As you drive into the imposing complex, you pass a 10-foot-high statue of J.B.M. Hertzog who was the prime minister of South Africa in the 1930s. Mandela smiled at it as we passed. In 2013, the statue of Hertzog was moved to a remote part of the grounds and replaced by an enormous bronze statue of Nelson Mandela with his arms raised in triumph.

Happy Nelson Mandela Day.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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