John Dramani Mahama, who was in the African National Congress with Nelson Mandela, remembers what it was like when Prisoner No. 46664 came out of jail:

Freedom on the African continent was a reality for which we were willing to fight. Nevertheless, I think we’d resigned ourselves to the likelihood that Mandela would remain a prisoner until his death, and South Africans would not experience equality until well after our lifetimes. Then on Feb. 11, 1990, the miraculous happened; Mandela was released.

The world was spellbound. We wondered what we would do if we were in his shoes. We all waited for an indescribable rage, a call for retribution that any reasonable mind would have understood. Twenty-seven years of his life, gone. Day after day of hard labor in a limestone quarry, chipping away at white rock under a bright and merciless sun — without benefit of protective eyewear — had virtually destroyed his tear ducts and, for years, robbed Mandela even of his ability to cry.

Yet, the man insisted on forgiveness. “To go to prison because of your convictions,” he said, “and be prepared to suffer for what you believe in, is something worthwhile. It is an achievement for a man to do his duty on earth irrespective of the consequences.”

By the time I finally came face to face with Nelson Mandela, he had already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and elected president of a land in which he and all other black people had previously been refused suffrage. He had become an icon, not only of hope, but also of the possibility for healing.

How Mandela forgave, I can barely fathom. That was a great man. A great man.