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A Memory of Nelson Mandela

A Memory of Nelson Mandela

Date: December 9, 2013

The world held a vigil over a weakening Nelson Mandela long enough that his death was almost anti-climatic.  This past weekend I realized:  this was his final gift to us, this gradual and dignified exit.  It gave us time to reflect and prepare.

Mandela's disappearance will not trigger a political and social unravelling in South Africa, as many once feared it might.  Yet he departs a South Africa that is badly fractured socially and torn by worsening economic inequality and personal insecurity.  South Africans, white and black, are pessimistic about the future.  It is not completely surprising that Mandela's successors have not risen to his level of visionary leadership.  Some would say they have not provided much leadership at all.  Of course, South Africa is not alone in this regard.

The outlook was very different back in 1990 when Mandela left prison after 27 years of confinement.  I remember the day very well.  I was in the northern Transvaal where I could find only an early edition Afrikaans-language newspaper account of his imminent release.  I raced back to Pretoria knowing we would be swamped for weeks to come with Washington's demand for reporting, analysis and policy advice.  I also anticipated a flood tide of official and celebrity American visitors eager to share in the moment and grab some of its magic.  Over the next three years, I participated as an observer and notetaker in perhaps a dozen private meetings with Mandela and tracked him on many public occasions as well.  

These were tumultuous, often violent times.  We all realized quickly that Mandela was the one essential figure in this drama.  Whereas President F.W. De Klerk stunned the world with his brave decision to release Mandela and unban the African National Congress, De Klerk knew he could not achieve a peaceful, negotiated transfer of power without Mandela.  De Klerk and Mandela would later share a Nobel Peace Prize, but the two were uneasy partners.  Even as they negotiated, Mandela's ANC supporters were under almost constant attack from other black political factions armed and advised by the South African security services.  This infuriated Mandela, but he refused to take the bait and break off the transition process.  His patience, negotiating skill and leadership were tested brutally every day for almost four years.

Of many trials, one stands out in my memory:  the assassination of one of Mandela's key lieutenants, South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani.  No other leader besides Mandela was as revered as Hani in the black townships.  When he was killed in his driveway by a lone white gunman in April 1993, South Africa was instantly seized by fear of a generalized uprising and a complete breakdown of negotiations.  President De Klerk appealed to Mandela to speak to the nation. Every television in every community in South Africa was tuned that night to Mandela's appearance. The former detainee mixed anguish and eulogy with a fervent call to his followers to continue on the high, hard road to a negotiated settlement.  From that moment forward there was no doubt anywhere in South Africa about who was setting the moral compass and providing leadership to the entire nation.  A moment of serous crisis had become another moment of hope.

There are many stories of Mandela the man -- the young African chief, the lawyer, the boxer, the prisoner, the husband, the father, the friend.  I recall how much we worried after his release from prison that Mandela was circulating everywhere with little ceremony and often without bodyguards of any kind.  We urged him to think of his personal safety.  He smiled back and told us not to worry.  He was determined to be accessible, to black and white alike.  Somehow, he remained safe.  

I remember too a late winter afternoon in Mandela's home in Soweto.  I was accompanying an envoy from Washington who was carrying a personal message from President George H.W. Bush.  We spent perhaps a half an hour talking about the message and the appropriate role of the US in helping ease South Africa's transition.  Mandela was alone, relaxing in an easy chair in his small living room.  The front door opened and Winnie Mandela walked in with an armful of shopping bags.  Mandela called out "hi, honey" and jumped up to ask if he could help with the groceries.  Winnie laughed, came to him, kissed him, and told him to tend to his guests. I knew at the time that I would recall forever that particular Ozzie and Harriet moment.  

Winnie's struggles and the couple's painful separation later were a severe blow for Mandela.  He managed it with quiet dignity, though for years the pain was evident on his face when the subject came up.

And, of course, there was the fact of his sheer physical presence.  When he entered a room, all activity stopped and every human nerve ending bent in his direction.  Mandela exuded authority.  He inspired.  He reassured.  Even after delivering a stern message, his smile would re-emerge big and radiant.  It felt like sunshine on your face after a rain.

I don't believe I will encounter any other Mandelas in my lifetime.  I feel very lucky indeed to have met just one.  

Mark Bellamy
Warburg Professor of International Relations
Simmons College