Nelson Mandela was one of those iconic leaders rarely seen anymore on the world stage. A politician who was above politics, a statesman largely devoid of personal ego, he risked everything and lost much, but he not only emerged from a quarter of a century in prison to help break the back of South African apartheid, he led his disgraced country to a respected place among the nations of the globe.
Mr. Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, essentially left public life a decade ago, but he was too large a figure to disappear completely. The movie "Mandela: Lo ng Walk to Freedom," which is now in limited release and looks back upon the man's long and remarkable life, testifies by its presence to his ongoing impact. Like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr., he was a transformative figure in the fight against racism whose impact will be felt long after his passing.
South Africa's system of institutionalized racism known as apartheid made it essentially a slave state run by generations of white European colonials, as well as an international pariah. Mr. Mandela joined the African National Congress in 1942 and was charged with treason in 1956 for his support of the Freedom Charter, which called for a non-racial democracy. He escaped jail that time, but in 1964, with an increasing number of African colonies becoming free and the South African leadership growing increasingly panicked, he was jailed and would not re-emerge until 1990.
Mr. Mandela, who was not allowed to attend the funerals of his mother and son while in prison, resisted offers of freedom in exchange for renouncing his cause. His example, combined with the bravery of other black South Africans and the economic sanctions against South Africa, caused apartheid to fracture, and in 1990 President F.W. de Klerk, a brutal leader who either saw the light or embraced pragmatism in his latter years, released his longtime foe from jail.
Four years later Mr. Mandela became his nation's president, and in 1995 he was in the stadium to root for South Africa's rugby team, long a symbol of apartheid, in the finals of the rugby world championships. This hugely symbolic and healing act was the subject of another film, "Invictus." He went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and was an inspiration for those who fought injustice around the world.
South Africa has its problems today -- most nations do -- but they are institutional issues that don't compare to the barbarity of what South Africa was under apartheid. Mr. Mandela triumphed, and the world will long celebrate that triumph.