By Muhammad Ali
Mandela. One name. One man. One mission: Saving a nation from itself.
Few men in the history of mankind have had more impact on a nation and inspired the world.
He led his country from the viciousness of apartheid to the glory of a multiracial democracy, peacefully.
Has an individual ever given more to a nation and a cause? Only those who have sacrificed their very lives.
Mr. Mandela could have easily spent those 26 years of incarceration abroad, protesting the evil from afar, safe from repercussions. Not him. If his people suffered, he would suffer with them.
I know something about protest. I know well the feelings and questions that run through the mind of those who stand against a system, braving everything for a cause.
It is never easy. The personal price is high, but the greatest of people persevere for the greater good. Modern South Africa is built on the back of Mr. Mandela’s sacrifice. It still amazes me, even to this day, that a man could give up two and half decades of his life, emerge from prison and forgive his imprisoners.
The Zulu word ndugu best describes him: my humanity is through you. Mr. Mandela was able, despite all the evil done to him, to see the humanity of those who punished him.
He was able to look into their souls and see something worth redeeming. This is a lesson that should be learned by the world: There is humanity, even in the worst of us. If only the leaders of nations would embrace his method, there would be peace throughout the world. He proved there is always a way to reconcile differences.
As Mr. Mandela walked to freedom, I thought about him in that cell, brave and proud and unbroken, fueled only by the power of his beliefs for all those years. His iron resolve was a beacon for that nation, and on that great day, South Africans followed that powerful, inspirational light out of bondage.
Later, I was amazed to discover that Mr. Mandela used to listen to my fights when he was imprisoned on Robben Island. That humbling revelation moved me to tears. There he was, a king in exile, being lifted up by my ring exploits. Had I known he was listening to Ali-Frazier I, I probably would’ve beaten Joe that night. I was always the greatest when I was fighting for something.
Mr. Mandela is considered a chief of his tribe; his family name is Mandiba. But he represents a much larger tribe. He is the chief of the tribe of courage, and decency for all of mankind. There is not a more significant, important, profound world leader of this century.
A hundred years from now, they will speak his name, and somewhere a child will be imbued with his spirit and use that inspiration to achieve greatness. This is his legacy, a path of light for generations to come. Can there be anything greater to leave behind?
For good reasons, Mr. Mandela is also called Tata, father. He is indeed the father of his nation. But because he has lived his life in service to others, been a warrior for freedom, an avatar of personal sacrifice, he is also the father of nations — Tata to the world.
I salute this greatest of men and feel honored and blessed to have lived through the time of Mandela.
This post is part of a series marking the theatrical release of Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, a new film starring Idris Elba and based on South African President Nelson Mandela’s autobiography of the same name. Film opens in select theaters November 29. View the full series of celebrity tributes at www.aol.com/mandelaand learn more about the film at www.mandelafilm.com.
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