By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez

     (On this, his 90th year—an occasion marked all around the world, and especially in London where 50,000 people gathered to help him celebrate his birthday—we thought it fitting to re-publish an editorial that we first ran some six years ago.)

Among the Greatest Men of the 20th Century

     Toward the end of the last spectacular century, polls indicated that people were almost evenly divided as to who had been the “greatest man of the 20th century,” Winston Churchill or Franklin D. Roosevelt.
     My vote would have been for FDR, mainly because his achieve-ments were two-fold: first, in guiding his country through its most catastrophic economic depression, and then leading the Allies to victory in the largest, most savage war in all of recorded history.
     My personal 20th century hero, however, is a modest, soft-spoken man who still walks among us, a giant among men who after having been imprisoned for 27 years in rabidly racist South Africa, later became president of that same (!) country, then united it in a way that had never been done before. That man is Nelson Mandela.
     However, this incredible accomp-lishment is only part of the story. Soon after leaving prison a free man, Mandela joined with the white leaders of South Africa in a heroic effort to stave off full-scale civil war. For their efforts, he and President de Klerk were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Then, after being swept into the presidency himself in a landslide vote, Mandela’s first official act was to make de Klerk his deputy president!
     The world watched, enthralled by the noble actions of what was obviously an inspired political leader. But how had it happened? How could an impoverished, poorly-educated black man spend more than two and a half decades in a 7 by 9 foot cell, and somehow emerge the brilliant leader South Africa had been awaiting for a hundred years?
     Mandela has often shared some of the secret. “I left prison more informed than when I went in. And the more informed you are, the less arrogant and aggressive you become.” In prison, he devoured books because he knew that free-dom’s most powerful weapon is knowledge.
     Mandela also learned the sublime art of how to defeat his opponents without dishonoring them. Some-where along the line, he likewise learned humility, as well as the true meaning of compassion. In daring not to hate his enemies, he eventually would disarm them.
     On the day he finally was released from prison, he asked that some of his white captors gather at the gate, so he could thank them for the small kindnesses they had shown him over the years. Ever modest, he thought there might be but a handful of guards there to say goodbye to him; instead the entire corps of prison personnel were there that morning to wish him well—and just past the gate were tens of thousands of his countrymen, and newsreel cameras from all around the world.
     Yet, despite the tumultuous reception, what very few suspected— perhaps least of all Mandela himself—was that his march toward the pan-theon of the 20th century’s great-est leaders was about to begin.