Yesterday, the world lost a great peacemaker. Nelson Mandela was one of history’s indispensible men, as important to South Africa as George Washington was to the United States. Emerging from a long political prison sentence, he guided his country through a period of forgiveness and reconciliation that ensured the creation of a stable democracy. In South Africa, the pattern of “one man-one vote-one time” that plagued the continent’s post-colonial history was not repeated. Like Washington, after a time as President, Mandela foreswore a ”presidency for life,” stepping down after one term.
South Africa could have turned out quite differently. After reading The Covenant, James Michener’s long novel on the country, I was convinced that apartheid could only end in an inter-racial bloodbath. Then I discovered the writings of Wilbur Smith. A native of the state of Natal, Smith writes of Africa with the clear-eyed realism of a man who loves his homeland. His works address the history of Africa from the viewpoints of both black Africans and white colonialists. His stories of friendships developing between the races gave me hope for a peaceful resolution of a seemingly hopeless situation. Mandela brought those hopes to reality.
Wilbur Smith was not widely recognized in the United Stated before the end of apartheid, perhaps because of his origins. Since the emergence of Mandela’s “Rainbow Democracy,” Smith’s epic novels, River God and Triumph of the Sun have appeared on the New York Times Bestseller lists. I recommend his prolific writings to all readers who would understand the history of Africa, especially South Africa and Zimbabwe. His last few books deal with Egypt, the Sudan, Somalia, and Kenya.
Nelson Mandela will be long remembered and revered. His life stands as a challenge to those of us who remain to match his capacity for forgiveness and peaceful change. The cycles of revenge so prevalent in today’s world must somehow be broken if peace is ever to prevail. Perhaps Mandela gave us a roadmap.