I must have been an extraordinarily ignorant teenager because the first time I heard of Nelson Mandela came only when I saw The Specials perform ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ on the BBC’s Top of the Pops. Who was Nelson Mandela, and why was it imperative that he be freed? What had this man done to get a song dedicated to him, one that had made the charts?
It was 1985, and South Africa was in the news. There were riots in its cities, talk of sanctions (not supported by the Reagan regime), and the acronym ANC loomed large. It was a good time to learn about Nelson Mandela’s life and deeds. Then, I satisfied myself with its bare particulars; they were sufficient to convince me the Specials were right. My first passport indicated that it was ‘valid for travel to all countries except the Republic of South Africa.’ I knew why.
A few years later, in 1990, as I finished the final semester of my first stint in graduate school in the US, Mandela was released. The day the news arrived in the US, I was attending a seminar on multi-dimensional scaling. (Don’t ask.) One of my classmates, also an Indian student, arrived late, breathlessly explaining his delay thanks to his being riveted by the live telecast of Mandela’s return to ‘normal life.’ So, yes, his release, for me and many others, counted as one of those ‘where were you when it happened’ moments.
A new South Africa emerged, one that could have easily regressed into retaliations and the usual violence that marked the departure of colonial and imperial regimes. Somehow Mandela expertly shepherded South Africa through that time, making concessions to the National Party that, rather than indicating his weakness, highlighted his strengths and the catholicity of his vision for the new nation that was being born.
It didn’t have an easy time of it and South Africa was lucky Mandela was around in its formative years. Now, it still faces formidable challenges from those usual suspects: poverty, crime, corrupt politicians, racial tensions. But that it is still around, a multi-racial democracy, in a region not known for political stability, is a miracle in itself. That happy fact owes a great deal to Mandela.
It has often been said that for any intractable political conflict to be solved, one generation must let go of the desire for revenge. Mandela passed on the options of bitterness, vengeance and punitive sanctions that were open to him and took on instead a strategy based on reconciliation, forgiveness and a keen desire to move on and leave the past behind. That alone marks him, quite easily, as one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.
By 2001, I was good friends with an Afrikaner, a colleague at my university; he told me tales about attending Mandela’s first speech after his release and being stunned by the warm welcome him and his Afrikaner wife were accorded by the black South Africans in the audience; he told me his brother had named his son after Mandela (‘Rolihlahla’); we swapped stories about cricket and about South Africa’s miraculous return to the cricketing fold after the dismantling of apartheid.
Later that year, T__ arranged a research visit for me to the University of South Africa. (While at Robben Island, Mandela had studied its correspondence courses.) In Pretoria, as is my wont when I visit a new city, I went to its bookstores. The first book I bought was Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. I read it during my stint in South Africa, enjoying every page, finally learning just how protracted his struggle for political and racial justice had been. Years later, my wife read my copy. I’ll buy my daughter her own.