NEW YORK — The thing about Nelson Mandela was that he made the rest of us want to be almost as noble as he.
Imprisoned for 27 years, the anti-apartheid leader who had declared at his 1964 trial that he was willing to die for his beliefs in human dignity and racial equality emerged from that experience not filled with hatred, but courtly, magnanimous, humble and good-humored.
His very demeanor served as the rebuttal to all those who peddled fear and foretold disaster and bloodshed should black South Africans get the vote and take power in Pretoria.
It is easy to forget what a seething cauldron South Africa had become by the early 1990s as part of its white minority struggled to hang on to the three centuries of privilege made possible by apartheid.
Khaki-clad farmers with pistols at their side were setting off bombs and pledging never to submit to majority rule. The townships with their shantytown poverty were ablaze with guns and violence as ANC activists and backers of the government-encouraged and Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party fought with terrifying ferocity. In Guguletu, outside Cape Town, a young American Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl was chased down and killed by a mob of youths shouting racial taunts of “Kill the farmer.” An anti-apartheid Communist leader, Chris Hani, was gunned down and killed by a right-wing Polish immigrant.
The nation felt like a tinderbox, a stage set for a bloodbath.
But what Mandela ushered into history instead was his profound regard for the rights of all South Africans to claim a share of the national patrimony. It was a point he boldly made on almost every public occasion, whether to householders in the white and affluent Johannesburg suburb of Houghton or on a stage thrown up at a dilapidated football stadium crammed to the rafters with township dwellers clamoring for economic justice.
Through tedious and patient negotiations over several years after his release from prison, the framework was set for the country’s first all-race elections in April 1994, even though almost until the last minute it was not clear that all the conflicting parties would participate. When the day finally dawned cold and clear, South Africans saw themselves as the rainbow nation they really were. More than 22 million people voted, their lines snaking over the verdant green hills, and it was evident to the majority that they were now, at last, full citizens in the land of their birth.
Part of the privilege of being around Nelson Mandela in those days was to see the undiluted joy he spread whenever he entered a township or a small settlement in one of the dusty impoverished homelands set up by apartheid governments to separate black from white South Africans.
As the cars carrying Mandela and his supporters jolted along the rutted dirt tracks, they soon would be joined by school children running alongside as fast as they could, shouting deliriously for “Madiba, Madiba,” the clan name that he is affectionately called. The stream of onlookers would coalesce into a river and then a sea of humanity outside whatever banner-draped venue had been chosen for his election rally. Finally, when the cars could move no farther, Mandela with his trusted aides would unfold himself from the vehicle and slowly walk through the people, smiling and waving and occasionally raising his fist in an ANC salute with a different brightly colored and patterned shirt on every day.
Inside there would be dancing, swaying, ululating, cheering and singing of his name, until he spoke in his unmistakable rasping voice, his slow cadence lending gravitas to his message.
He could be firm with his followers, upbraiding them like a stern uncle — saying they were embarrassing the cause when they tore down posters of opponents or heckled members of the National Party of F.W. de Klerk, his Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate and (to Mandela) little-loved partner in South Africa’s peaceful transition. “People will believe that we are unfit for government,” he would warn followers when they showed any signs of hooligan behavior.
He was loyal as well to the Third World and to the Non-Aligned Movement, the countries that had formed the anti-apartheid front. Even when he was firmly embraced by the United States government, he would not forsake his old revolutionary allies Yasser Arafat, Moammar Gadhafi or Robert Mugabe — those who had befriended his cause at a time when the world’s richer and more powerful countries were still supporting apartheid South Africa.
And he could be brutal with his political opponents. At the single televised debate with de Klerk before the election, Mandela was so scathing verbally, coming on relentlessly like the boxer he once was in his youth, that many viewers felt sorry for the last white leader of South Africa. And Mandela completely flummoxed him when he seized de Klerk’s hand for a unifying handshake at the end.
I met Mandela a few times at small group interviews during those years, including on the morning after voting in his historic election ended.
After his swearing-in for president on the steps of the rose-hued government building in Pretoria, where an honor guard of South African fighter jets roared overhead in formation trailing different colors to salute to the nation’s first democratically chosen leader, Mandela slipped easily into the role of president. He faced a constant round of hosting dignitaries and celebrities, chairing Cabinet meetings, and traveling, leaving many day-to-day affairs to his ministers and to his chosen political heir Thabo Mbeki.
In a meeting for a group of foreign journalists when he was then 77, he recounted all the affairs of state and problems of the country that were keeping him busy, but made clear nevertheless that he was still energetic and still relishing the burden of leading his nation and serving as an icon for Africa and for the cause of truth and reconciliation everywhere.
“At the end of day, I have often felt that I have spent my time very fruitfully,” he told us with his typical understatement and a slight twinkle in the eye.
Remembering now, and contemplating one man’s long and momentous journey into history, I can only agree.