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Nelson Mandela's moral legacy

A former Monitor correspondent and longtime Mandela watcher reflects on

By John Battersby / May 10, 1999

As Nelson Mandela prepares to step down after five years as president, South Africans are beginning to reflect on what makes him so special and what it is about him they will truly miss.

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Mr. Mandela, who emerged from 27 years in prison to negotiate the end of apartheid with his jailers, leaves a legacy of principled leadership and racial reconciliation.

His critics complain that he has tried to quell white apprehensions at the expense of meeting black aspirations. It remains to be seen whether his successors will be able to redress stark racial inequalities without undermining confidence in one of Africa's most robust economies.

It is almost 10 years since Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the legend, walked out of a prison warder's house after nearly three decades in jail.

I'll never forget that moment. It was a hot summer's day and the surrounding vineyards were shimmering under a clear blue sky. Local and international media thronged the entrance of the prison.

I had wandered unnoticed into the prison grounds, where my slate-blue cotton suit blended in with the uniforms of the South African police.

Time stood still during the hour in which we waited for Mandela, the man who had inspired me deeply with his sacrifice for the ideal of a genuinely democratic South Africa, where white fears and black aspirations would be reconciled.

A delegation of anti-apartheid leaders, including Mr. Mandela's controversial wife at the time, Winnie, had entered the prison by car and headed down the road to the warder's house.

But when the moment arrived and I saw the tall figure of Mandela striding toward the media throng, I lost all sense of time and ego and walked toward him with a broad smile. He noticed me, smiled back, and walked up to shake my hand. I later realized he'd recognized me from my picture byline in the Cape Town newspaper, The Cape Times. I had written a regular column from London in the mid-1980s, which often dealt with the growing impact that the African National Congress (ANC) was making in its international campaign to topple the apartheid government. Mandela and many of his colleagues had read the column in prison.

Now I was writing for The Christian Science Monitor and was privileged to chronicle this poignant moment in my country's history for an American and international audience.

Apart from the many formal contacts, news conferences, and interviews, I've spent quality time with Mandela on several occasions - on his private jet and over lunch at his private residence. I've cherished these moments.

Mandela's relationship with the media is probably unique for a world leader. Last year he visited every newspaper editor in South Africa and made newsroom walkabouts shaking hundreds of hands. He even broke away from his planned schedule on his first visit to the US in 1990 and, while in Boston, visited the headquarters of The Christian Science Monitor.

It's become conventional wisdom in some political circles that this image-making work has been Mandela's chief role as president -raising ANC funds and promoting trade and investment. Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, a more urbane, strategic, and consultative politician, will take the reigns of the presidency on June 16 - though he's been effectively in control for much of the past five years, chairing Cabinet meetings, directing policy, and running day-to-day government.

That the stage has been set for a smooth transition from Mandela is a tribute to his efforts to bolster Mr. Mbeki's image as a worthy successor.

The power of Mandela is his extraordinary living example as a leader who, after sacrificing 27 years of his life for the ideal of a racially integrated democracy, talked to his enemies and then negotiated them out of power. His commitment to justice, reconciliation, and moral integrity was vital to the success of an often-fraught transition.

Mandela's unique style in reaching out to whites while stressing the need for black empowerment has been key to a relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to black majority rule.

In balancing these potentially explosive forces, Mandela has laid the foundation for the next stage of the transition - a real transfer of economic power to blacks and a more rapid Africanization of the civil service and other institutions.

Mandela's most abiding contribution to South Africa's emerging democracy may be the support he gave to the creation and execution of Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He resisted overwhelming pressure from within the ANC to downplay human rights violations committed by exiled ANC cadres who'd been in charge of detention camps outside the country, where ANC dissidents were held.