Of all the rightly deserved accolades heaped on Nelson Mandela with his passing, perhaps the most important have to do with his humanity, his ubuntu, as it is called in Zulu. On its own it was rather remarkable; when compared with current leaders everywhere who routinely put political expediency and professional longevity ahead of the greater good, Mandela’s humanity was nothing short of stunning.
For this was a man who could, justifiably, have emerged from decades of imprisonment bitter and vengeful. Consider what he endured: In 1964, Mandela and seven other African National Congress comrades were convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid government and sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in jail on Robben Island, a desolate stretch of rock off the coast of Cape Town. It was a place of great hardship and isolation: the cells tiny and damp, furnished only with a straw mat, the water so saline as to be almost undrinkable. Mandela and his comrades worked long hours, pounding rocks into gravel; he is thought to have contracted a lung disease from inhaling the dust. After a few years, he was transferred to work in a lime quarry. There the glare from the sun, glinting off the lime, permanently damaged his eyesight. Initally he was allowed only one visit and one letter every six months. (This, at a time, when he had young children.) He would spend 27 years in prison, denied all life-cycle events that give meaning to one’s existence; the authorities even prevented him from attending the funeral of his first-born son,who died in a car accident.
Yet when finally released from prison, Mandela’s message was one of reconcilliation. The white naysayers–the same ones who had refused to engage the ANC during the decades it used only non-violent means of protest, finally forcing the organization to take up arms–warned of the impending bloodbath. In their twisted logic, you had to keep the system of repression going for fear of what would happen in reprisal when it stopped. Not that there wasn’t precedence on the continent; think Rwanda, Congo, Sudan. You just have to look over South Africa’s border at Zimbabwe to see how a mad, spiteful despot has gone after the white citizenry and destroyed the country in the process. But that was not Mandela’s way. Not during the years of talks that led to the first democratic election in 1994, not when he was voted in as president, not in ensuing years after he stepped down. The contrary; he preached tolerance and patience and unity.
I never had the honor of formally meeting Mandela. The closest I got was to sit at the table next to his at a luncheon following the inauguration of Joaquin Chissano, the first democratically elected president of Mozambique. The event took place under a white tent on the lawn of the Presidental Palace on a brain-boilingly hot day. Nevertheless, Mandela had traded his signature outfit of brilliantly colored shirt and trousers for an elegant dark suit befitting the occasion. As the honored guest, he was the first to be escorted to the buffet table by a white-jacketed steward. The man, who had an I-can’t-wait-to-tell-my-kids-about-this look on his face, explained all the dishes to Mandela, then picked up a plate and attempted to serve him. Mandela gently protested, but the steward insisted; it would be his honor to dish out food for the South African president. Which he did, triumphantly bearing the plate back to Mandela’s place at his table. It was a fascinating little tableau: Mandela, humble yet regal, with an air of authority and gravity that somehow still managed to be approachable in his interaction with the obviously ecstatic steward. I spent the rest of the lunch trying to figure out ways to get closer to Mandela, but he was well-shielded by his (mostly white) bodyguards.
I did, however, have the pleasure of interviewing one of his former prisonmates, Govan Mbeki, the first of the ANC’s senior leaders to be released from Robben Island. (His son, Thabo, would succeed Mandela after he stepped down as president.) That encounter provided some insight into the motivation that informed Mandela’s sense of humanity. Mbeki was freed in November 1987 for medical reasons and confined to his home in New Brighton in the Eastern Cape; I flew down there and was allowed to spend the day with him. Besides his formidable intellect and humor, Mbeki’s most remarkable characteristic was his utter lack of bitterness. He was imprisoned on Robben Island for 24 years; like Mandela, he had been forced to spend what should have been the most productive years of his life apart from family, friends and community under brutal conditions; he was now a frail, old man. And yet he bore his captors no ill will. Indeed, his spoke of nothing but optimism for the future. How could he be forgiving–as Mandela would be upon his release–for essentially having missed out on so much? He said: Even in our darkest, most trying times, we always believed in the justness of our cause. Justice would ultimately triumph; that would be our reward. Hatred and revenge would only destroy what we had worked so hard to achieve.
Stunningly simple words. But Mandela modelled those beliefs as president and international statesman. He was a once-in-a-lifetime leader. It’s doubtful that any of us will see his likes again.