Nelson Mandela, the longtime political prisoner who became the first president of post-Apartheid South Africa and who died last week at the age of 95, shared admirable accomplishments with a great many historic figures. In a few ways, however, he is a member of a small group.
First and foremost, when his one term as president of South Africa ended, he departed the political scene, spending the rest of his active life boosting causes such as HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and leaving the levers of power to others. Mandela was no Vladimir Putin, who, when he ran into term limits as president of Russia, orchestrated the election of a handpicked successor and then later ran again and won the presidency. Instead, Mandela was much like George Washington, who led his country to independence, served two terms as president and then, at a time when there was no limit on how long a president could serve, returned to his beloved Mount Vernon.
Another way Mandela distinguished himself was how he managed the transition from white minority rule to black majority government. He insisted there be no retribution against the minority, unlike how things went in South Africa’s neighbor to the north, Zimbabwe, the country formerly known as Rhodesia. Zimbabweans, white and black alike, have suffered under the brutal and incompetent rule of Robert Mugabe since 1980.
Finally, although as an anti-Apartheid crusader Mandela espoused socialist ideas of the sort many of his early allies in the battle for majority rule held, he never tried to impose them on South Africa once he was in power, a rare bit of discretion.