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The full Nelson
As life slowly fades from the world's tallest statesman his extraordinary legacy comes into full, glorious view.
Nelson Mandela, who turned 95 a few days ago, has been in hospital since June 8 with a recurring lung infection, and while doctors are doing everything they can to help him recover, few believe he will survive for very long. There have been overnight vigils, prayers and huge displays of public affection across South Africa for the ailing stalwart. Not many leaders of today inspire such devotion. The grand old man is more than an icon. He is the last great statesman of the twentieth century destined to take his place in history alongside Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. The former South African President has made few public appearances since retiring from public life in 2004. Which leads me to believe that a meeting with him is something to write about.
And I will never forget the moment I came face to face with him many years ago as a reporter for the Cape Times, a South African news daily. It was an extraordinary event for me. He was then the president of South Africa and on a visit to the UK as a guest of the European Union. The meeting was in a Cardiff hotel suite and I found myself invited as part of a group of five "South African" correspondents to a breakfast with him.
It was awkward at first. I was relatively young and not South African at all. Mr Mandela probably found that interesting and indulged me with an avuncular pat on the shoulder and a long handshake - much to my embarrassment as well as joy. His very presence was awe-inspiring. As he entered a quite hush fell over the room. Here was a man who had freed his country from the last vestige of a racist regime. In doing so he not only rescued South Africa from a dangerous civil war but gave hope to millions who wanted nothing more than the right to live in freedom and dignity. This was a man who carried with him a sense of destiny and had the courage to suffer for it. At least twice during his 27 years behind prison he turned down his captors' conditional offers of release. So, when he did emerge, it was on his own terms. Some say the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which he helped establish soon after his release was an act of compromise. Be that as it may, it was perhaps the only way to bring closure to the victims of apartheid without risking retribution. Not making such a compromise, Nelson Mandela knew, would condemn another generation of South Africans to a life of hate and violence. With a combination of moral force, conviction and example he convinced South Africans that the path to a better future was not through retribution but reconciliation. He also did something that no other African leader had done before him - make way for a successor by deciding, voluntarily, not to run for a second term.
None of that crossed my mind at the time, though, because it was a rare chance to bask in his presence. And despite his exalted status it was anything but intimidating. Mandela's personal charm is something that even his former prison guards admitted they could not escape. He was also quick with jokes. Some of those he shared at that breakfast table were too South African for my comprehension. And although I played along he quickly realised I was feeling out of place. So he tried some small talk. Before long it was I who was doing most of the talking - asking him all the questions required to make good copy for a news story. I do not remember a single line from the report I filed but the memory of this meeting will forever remain etched in my mind.
As he now nears his end perhaps it is worth pondering, what makes a good leader great? That hour-long meeting allows me to draw some conclusions. It requires an immense strength of character, moral rectitude, commitment, courage and, above all, destiny - for it is difficult to imagine how the privileged son of a tribal chieftain could have morphed into a freedom fighter if it were not for the events that swept him into that role. A great leader also needs the power of persuasion and a gift of charisma. How else could Mandela sell the idea of a multi-racial democratic South Africa, where blacks and whites could live as equals, to friends and foes alike?
Nelson Mandela not only brought his country in from the cold but also steered it away from an abyss of racial violence. South Africa owes it to him for becoming the multiracial "rainbow" nation that it is today. What makes him one of greatest statesmen of the 20th century is the extraordinary legacy he leaves behind - one of reconciliation and forgiveness without which neither the oppressor nor the oppressed can ever find peace.
The writer is a Singapore-based communications specialist
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