He might have been triumphal, vengeful, proud, vindictive, exultant. Nelson Mandela was none of those things upon his inauguration as president of the country that since his birth 75 years ago denied him rights of citizenship and for 27 of those years kept him in prison. He was uplifting, generous, all-embracing. "Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud."
That was a courageous thing to say because, knowing the troubled times that must lie ahead, the new president of South Africa has set the highest standard against which he and his colleagues will be judged. With each tax and policy and choice and appointment, are they creating a society of which all humanity will be proud?
How this compares with the tawdry and murderous politics of exclusion that prevails in Yugoslavia, in Rwanda, in Cambodia and in much of the increasingly separatist debate in the United States. "To my compatriots, I have no hesitation in saying that each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld."
How it compares with other transformations of power that involve the turning of tables, the rooting out of the guilty, the redistribution of whatever might be redistributed. In calling for "healing of the wounds" and "the moment to bridge the chasm," Mr. Mandela paid great credit to all who had brought the peaceful transformation, singling out the man he called, possessively, "my second deputy president," his former jailer, the former president, F. W. de Klerk.
Mr. Mandela had, the day before, established a government of national unity embracing his former enemies and rivals, and he now took aim at "the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination." The going will not be easy. Tempers will fray. Crises will erupt. But he set a goal to be remembered.
With Mr. de Klerk's help, the old revolutionary has not only managed a peaceful, cooperative transformation. He has set a standard of inclusion and forgiveness and common humanity that is often lacking among the victors wherever liberty has had to be won by some at the expense of others.
For all the echoes of the American clergyman Martin Luther King Jr., what came shining through Mr. Mandela's rhetoric was his South African patriotism, his love of that particular land, embracing all his compatriots.
"Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement! Let freedom reign. God bless Africa!"
It will be hard in dealing with mundane and intractable problems to live up to his vision of liberation for all. That is its majesty.