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Editorial: Mandela, a moral force for the ages

NelsMandelraises clenched fist Feb. 25 1990 as he arrives address mass rally town Bloemfontewhere African National Congress was formed. The

Nelson Mandela raises a clenched fist on Feb. 25, 1990, as he arrives to address a mass rally in the town of Bloemfontein, where the African National Congress was formed. The rally was held just a few days after Mandela’s release from jail. | TREVOR SAM

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Updated: January 7, 2014 6:06AM

Hard to believe perhaps, but the world is a less violent place.

Harvard professor Steven Pinker documents this truth in a 2010 book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” and offers several explanations, including stronger central governments, greater global trade and the spread of democracy.

We would add this: Nelson Mandela and the example he set.

Mandela, above all others, spared his beloved South Africa from a civil war of bloody vengeance after the fall of the white racist apartheid regime; and it is impossible to imagine that the moral values he chose to guide him — reconciliation, democracy and even forgiveness — have been lost entirely on political and moral leaders today from Moscow to Washington to Jerusalem to Warsaw.

President Barack Obama acknowledged as much when asked last year who his heroes were.

“Internationally, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi,” Obama said. “I always am interested in leaders who are able to bring about transformative change without resort to violence, but rather changing people’s minds and people’s hearts.”

Other African nations throwing off white and colonial rule in the second half of the 20th century frequently fell into warfare and their economies became a shambles. Corrupt governments pursued radical policies of redistribution, especially of land, that drove away technical expertise and foreign investment.

But for South Africa, Mandela would have none of that. He cared nothing for vengeance, either as a political prisoner for 27 years or as South Africa’s first black president. He wanted nothing more for South Africa — or less — than an end to white minority rule and the creation of a multiracial democracy. He never answered racism with racism.

“Courageous people do not fear forgiving, for the sake of peace,” he said.

Remarkably, Mandela held to these views and aims his entire adult life, often to the frustration of more militant African National Congress comrades, and decades of breaking rocks on Robben Island seemed to add no bitterness. He was prepared to die for the cause, as he made clear in his famous 1963 Speech from the Dock, but he would not hate.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” he said. “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Yes, Mandela was imperfect, which is to say he was human. His married life could get messy, he arguably was overly appeasing, and his ANC — the nation’s ruling party — was later beset by incompetence.

As if any of that matters.

History will remember how Mandela, in a manipulation of symbols typical of his wise efforts to build national unity, rallied black South Africans in 1995 to get behind the previously hated national rugby team, the Springboks.

When the Springboks won the Rugby World Cup, they were stunned by the outpouring of support.

“We didn’t have 60,000 South Africans,” said the team captain, Francois Pienaar. “We had 43 million South Africans.”

Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, was a moral force for the ages.

May our troubled world continue to learn from his example.

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