This is one of those passings when all the superlatives coming out of the radios and TV and on the Intertubes are fitting. Not only did Nelson Mandela live an incredible life (although 27 years of it were in prison), but he touched literally billions. I was one of them. In my college years, there were two political issues which rocked the campuses — in the early 1980's, it was nuclear proliferation. In the mid-1980's, it was Mandela's cause: apartheid.
As leader of the African National Congress, Mandela himself had been languishing away in prison since 1964. His cause was taken to the United States in the ealry 1970s. Few paid attention. Then, slowly, some did. In the late 70's and early 80's, certain municipalities in California made sure they none of their pension plan money was invested in businesses that did business in South Africa. The idea took on. In San Francisco, dock workers — most of whom most assuredly had no relatives or connection to South Africa — refused to unload cargo from ships that came from South Africa.
By the mid-1980s, andti-apartheid was everywhere. Campuses erupted in protest — not like you saw in the 1960s, but protest nonetheless, as students urged (successfully) that their schools divest in South African businesses. Musicians vowed not to play Sun City.
The idea was to let the white power minority in South Africa know that they would suffer as a result of their official policy of apartheid.
Reagan and the conservatives were, as usual, on the wrong side of history. While giving lip service to evils of apartheid, Reagan steadfastly refused to impose sanctions against South Africa. Mandela was a terrorist, Reagan would say (which was true, Mandela was on the terrorist list and the African National Congress was deemed a terrorist group). But of course, Reagan's policies had a lot to do with who was on that list.
When Congress voted for sanctions against South Africa, Reagan vetoed the bill. Then, for the first and only time in the 20th century, Congress overrode a veto on a matter relating to foreign policy, and sanctions were imposed. South Africa's power brokers began to see the end.
Mandela wasn't released from prison until 1991, and became President of South Africa in 1994. He will long be remembered for what he did as President — rather than seeking punishment or (some would say) justice against his former oppressors, including those who committed human rights violations against him, Mandela adopted a policy of forgiveness. Anyone who confessed to their crimes given amnesty. This helped heal South Africa after the end of apartheid.
Many in the media are comparing Mandela to Martin Luther King, Jr. Inapt, I say. Apartheid was segregation on steroids. It is one thing to oppress a minoirty, as in segregation. It is quite another for whites to suppress blacks when blacks outnumber whites 7-to-1. That was apartheid.
Mandela served only one term as president. After that, approaching his 80's, he was still active in fighting poverty and AIDS, and an advocate for children's education.
He died yesterday at the age of 95. I think he was the last great leader for many centuries to come. Presidents and other world leaders come and go, but I don't think any come close to the worldwide impact of Mandela. He was Washington. He was Chruchill.
Note: Lot of hypocrites out there right now eulogizing Mandela. Let's not forget that the warbloggers and Tea Partiers (and their followers in the UK) were vilifying him when he criticized US policy under George W. Bush or said something on Palestine that deviated from the standard US-media line.