One June 12th, 1964, almost exactly 49 years ago, Nelson Mandela was convicted by an apartheid court of sabotage, and jailed for life.
At the time he told the court:
I do not deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness nor because I have any love of violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of my people by the whites.
With that moral clarity Mandela served 27 years behind bars, mostly on Robben Island, an island prison off of Cape Town where he was subjected to back-breaking labor. Labor designed to kill and humiliate.
He was miraculously released in 1990, and then was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with President FW de Klerk. Finally, and triumphantly, in 1994 he was elected South Africa's president in the country's first elections that included the black majority.
I had the unbelievable honor of meeting President Mandela several times, but it was a conversation with one of his security guards in a Seattle hallway in 1999 that taught me most about what he means.
The security guard was a part of the elite unit that provides protection to the President of South Africa, and I was standing in a hallway in between meetings and had a chance to ask him about his background.
The burly, blond Afrikaner told me that when Mandela was elected in 1994 he was sure that it was the end of his work. He had protected President de Klerk and like many white South Africans he believed that Mandela's election meant the end of his job. He believed that with a black president there would be a new black agenda, one that meant that any white in a position of power could assume that things were about to become very difficult.
In a deep voice, thick with an accent I could barely understand, he said "After this man became president he came to the presidential residence for the first time. We lined up to offer our resignations. He gathered all of us together in a room and told us we were not going anywhere. Though we had previously been enemies, and had previously seen him as a criminal, he was going to have us protect him. I will do so with honor for the rest of my life."
Name one elected official in the world today that would have the courage to fully forgive and totally embrace those who imprisoned him for 27 years.
Imagine one elected official who would have the courage surround himself with armed men, who most would perceive to be the enemy, when many people thought that there was a very strong chance he would be killed.
This story is one little part of what Mandela means.