Nelson Mandela's moral legacy
A former Monitor correspondent and longtime Mandela watcher reflects on
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The vital moment came last October when Mandela, as head of state, accepted the Truth Commission report which, while indicting apartheid, also had harsh words for ANC members guilty of gross human rights abuses.Skip to next paragraph
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The ANC, under its new president, Mbeki, tried to block publication of the report, and doesn't accept that human rights violations by those against apartheid can be equated with the violations of apartheid officials.
South Africans of all races will look back in a generation or two and will be indebted to Mandela for taking this important moral stand. It is a cornerstone of the emerging South African democracy and the only basis on which to build a moral society.
THE question that has always fascinated me is: Who is Nelson Mandela? I once was alone with him on his private jet to Durban. After gazing out the window for a time, he began to speak about himself with a sense of detachment. It was as though he, too, wanted to know who this Nelson Mandela was, and what would happen to him when he relinquished his post as president of the country and the ANC.
Anthony Sampson, whose official biography of Mandela is due out this month, describes a striking personality change between the impulsive and impatient 40-something revolutionary of the late 1950s, and the measured and dignified 70-year-old who stepped out of prison in 1990.
Clearly, the Mandela we know today was forged in part by the way he dealt with the emotional deprivation, hardship, and separation from his loved ones while in prison. It was a wiser, more compassionate, strategic, and self-disciplined leader who emerged from jail.
One of the best things that has happened to Mandela is his relationship with Graa Machel and their marriage on his 80th birthday last year. I spent a long lunch at his house in 1996 hearing the details of his relationship and the compromise arrangement they'd made whereby Ms. Machel would spend two weeks of every month in Mozambique, where she is a prominent public figure, and two weeks at Mandela's Johannesburg home. It was an unusual and difficult compromise.
His face lit up like a teenager's as he told their story, and then brought me pictures of her.
I then had to write the story of their relationship - which had been denied until that point - without referring to the fact that I had spoken with Mandela.
One aspect of Mandela that fascinates some admirers and biographers is the ease with which he interacts with the rich and powerful. After being released from jail he soon became a potent fund-raiser for the ANC - both internationally and at home.
He is not shy in asking his foreign guests, or anyone else, for funds. He once was known to return a check for $40,000 to a leading South African industrialist because he had asked for four times that amount.
Mandela has a childlike sense of humor. Asked by a foreign corresondent last year why the ANC was so bent on achieving a two-thirds majority when it already had a clear governing majority, he responded with a polite tirade against his political opposition, which he dismissed as "Mickey Mouse" parties.
Tony Leon, the outspoken leader of the liberal opposition Democratic Party, retorted the next day by saying that Mandela headed a "Goofy" government.
Unsettled by the exchange, I wrote in my Sunday column that the battle between Mickey Mouse and Goofy would be funny if the underlying issues weren't so desperately serious. Shortly after the exchange, Mr. Leon suffered health problems and found himself in the same Johannesburg clinic as Helen Suzman, the veteran civil rights campaigner who was receiving treatment.
Mandela went to the clinic to visit Ms. Suzman, who told him that Leon was there, too. Mandela spontaneously went to Leon's ward and from behind a curtain announced himself: "Mickey Mouse, this is Goofy."
"I heard this unmistakably familiar voice but couldn't believe it was Mandela," said Leon, who has sharp political differences with the world's most famous leader.
"But he is a wonderful human being," he said.
*John Battersby is the editor-in-chief of The Sunday Independent, a national Sunday newspaper based in Johannesburg, South Africa. From 1989 to 1994 he was the correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor in Southern Africa. From 1994 to 1996 he was the Monitor's Middle East correspondent based in Jerusalem.