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Inevitably, Americans look at Africa through the lens of race, but that’s a mistake. Africa is about tribes, and one of the many things that made apartheid such a hateful system is that it was a European imposition, it was alien to the culture of the sub-Saharan continent, because it was all about race.

The importance of Nelson Mandela is both obscured and enhanced by this racial overlay.  South Africa was anomalous because it was fundamentally about race, while the internal conflicts elsewhere in Africa–as in Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique–were basically tribal wars.  But Mandela’s charisma, his ability to lead, the respect he commanded within the country derived in large part from the fact that he was a prince of the Qosa tribe, the largest and most important in the country.

To see that Mandela was bred and raised to be a leader, all you had to do was watch him walk, or even stand.  Such elegant posture, such grace as he moved, such elegance of gesture, and such command of whatever language he was speaking…he was nobility.  And not just in public;  to sit and talk with him was a singular pleasure.  Like all great leaders, he listened attentively, and chose his words carefully.  He commanded respect in all settings.

Yet despite his powerful charisma, he was also a humble man.  In all his actions–as the prisoner who earned the respect and admiration of his jailers, the president who embraced all his people, and a loyal fan who wore the national rugby shirt as South Africa won the World Championship–it was never about him.  It was always about the country, about the people, and about the importance of both strength and toleration.

One does not often find such qualities in a world-historical figure.  Only such a man could have led South Africa to national unity at that time, when so many were confidently predicting a racial bloodbath.  His example set the tone and inspired the nation.