Nelson Mandela's moral legacy

A former Monitor correspondent and longtime Mandela watcher reflects on

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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