The white South African system of apartheid was a brutal, cynical system of racial segregation that was becoming increasingly unsustainable and most observers believed it could end in only one way — massive bloodshed.
The majority black population believed revolution to be inevitable and the white-ruled government made careful preparations to see that such a revolution would not succeed. It is owing largely to one man, Nelson Mandela, that neither came to pass.
If Mandela, who died Thursday at 95, could be cloned sub-Saharan Africa would be a much better place.
Mandela was cruelly and unfairly convicted of crimes that consisted largely of wishful thinking and spent 27 years in prison on Robben Island for the dreamy and impractical scheme to overthrow white rule. He was taken to the island when he was 44 and returned when he was 71.
He seemed by nature free of self-pity but during his days mining limestone and his nights in a small cell he developed an almost preternatural dignity.
He also learned Afrikaans, the language of both his jailers and the ruling minority government, and it is not overstating the case to say he literally talked his way out of jail with his vision of a multiracial society.
With the white Afrikaaner president, F.W. de Klerk, he negotiated the terms of the country’s first free election, which Mandela won handily. But in contrast to the pattern of African self-rule, where the first free election is the last, Mandela stepped down at the end of his term. Inevitably, the government fell into the hands of lesser men but, even so, it was still so much better than what preceded Mandela.
Mandela had an uncanny sense of the appropriate gesture. His jailer from Robben Island was in the front row at his inauguration. When the South African rugby team, the Springboks, revered by whites, won the world championship, Mandela came down to the field wearing Springbok colors to present the trophy.
He created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which in practice did little of either, but it provided a badly needed outlet for the people to vent the anger and frustration they felt from the indignities suffered under apartheid.
Regardless of whether or not you believe in the Great Man theory of history, Mandela was truly a great man.