On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison—a free man after 27 years. Tall and thin, he carried his head high as he always had. But something was different. His good friend Bishop Desmond Tutu said he had grown in generosity of spirit for now he understood the fears and anxieties of his adversaries. He had left his anger behind, saying, if he had not done so "then they would still have me."
Mandela was relentless in his fight against apartheid and he beckoned the world to come to his side. "We have walked and not fainted," he told a crowd of 2,000 gathered at Riverside Church in New York that June as he asked for support in maintaining sanctions against South Africa. "Our destination is in sight. Our victory will be your victory."
Unrest, bloodshed, secret talks, and negotiations followed. In April 1994, while South Africa held its first free elections tens of thousands stood in long lines or slept on the ground waiting to vote. On May 10, one billion television viewers witnessed the inauguration of the country's first black president.
Mandela served a five-year term, all the while embracing the power of truth to heal. He gave women a voice, he granted individualized amnesty, he advocated for free health care, and he supported the Springboks (mostly white) rugby team.
When Mandela left office he devoted himself to the welfare of children—working towards an integrated school system, rebuilding dilapidated schools, creating new ones in rural areas, starting school feeding programs to keep children in school. Although he came late to the cause he fought the stigma against HIV/AIDS, saying, "AIDS knows no custom. It knows no colour. It knows no boundaries."
Returning to his home in Qunu when he saw that people washed their clothes in the stream, the same water they used for drinking, he took on the fight for access to clean water.
On July 18, 2013, crowds gathered outside the hospital in Pretoria to sing "Happy Birthday, Madiba" in celebration of Mandela Day, the 95th birthday of their former president. Brass bands played and vuvuzelas blasted in what may have been the biggest birthday party ever. People from all walks of life painted houses, cleaned streets, planted trees, and volunteered in schools. Meanwhile birthday greetings poured in from Africa, Australia, Europe and the Americas. Bishop Tutu told the world that Mandela "makes us walk tall as South Africans."
Mandela's long walk ended on December 5. He died having shown the world what one individual can achieve by putting aside bitterness to pursue a dream. Many Mandela Days still lie ahead.
(Kem Knapp Sawyer is the author of Champion of Freedom: Nelson Mandela, a biography for young readers.)