Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, raise clenched fists as...

Nelson Mandela and his wife, Winnie, raise clenched fists as they walk hand-in-hand upon his release from prison in Cape Town, South Africa. Credit: AP, 1990

With an ironclad commitment to human equality and a magnetic talent for leadership, Nelson Mandela helped crush South Africa’s apartheid laws and lead his country through a stunning transition.

An irrepressible force for justice, he died Thursday in South Africa at the age of 95. The former South African president was admitted to a Pretoria hospital on June 8 for treatment of a recurring lung infection. He was taken home to Johannesburg in critical condition on Sept. 1.

Mandela was long regarded as one of the world’s most admired figures. His legacy is as improbable as it is profound. For much of his life, there were few signs that pointed to success.

While South Africa’s racial conflict is often likened to the postwar struggle for equality in the southern United States, the comparison is misleading. America’s struggle was focused on issues such as segregated schools and lunch counters.

The conflict in South Africa was far more fundamental.

It was ultimately over whose country South Africa was, said writer Alister Sparks, and its tensions were more like those between Palestinians and Israelis or Greeks and Turks.

Tried for treason beginning in 1956, Mandela and 155 others were adjudicated not guilty in proceedings that lasted for six years. Two years later, in 1964, he was convicted of sabotage and treason for trying to overthrow apartheid.

He spent almost 27 years in prison, much of that time on infamous Robben Island off Cape Town.

Yet in 1990, when a weary and beleaguered South African government finally decided to free Mandela in the twilight of apartheid, he emerged stronger than ever.

“The apartheid destruction on our subcontinent is incalculable,” he said at Cape Town City Hall on the day he walked out of prison. “The fabric of family life of millions of my people has been shattered. Millions are homeless and unemployed. Our economy lies in ruins and our people are embroiled in political strife.”

Mandela said he had fought an armed struggle against apartheid because he cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

“It’s an ideal I hope to live for and achieve,” he said.

He did both.

The United States had its Abraham Lincoln. India had its Mohandas Gandhi. And South Africa — along with the world — had Nelson Mandela.

His peaceful revolution in the country of his birth is one of the great achievements of the late 20th century.

His steadfast dedication to the values of democracy and human dignity will forever stand as an inspiration.

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