Even as much of the world mourns his passing, it is easy to underestimate Nelson Mandela’s greatness. His legacy has been fused with Tinseltown dramas starring such presidential figures as Dennis Haysbert and Morgan Freeman. Accustomed as we are to Hollywood’s happy endings, we might miss the sheer extraordinariness of Mandela’s life.
He was a once-in-a-century figure, the sort of man who could endure the most inhumane treatment and emerge with grace, dignity and not a trace of bitterness. His ability to forgive the Afrikaners who devised the depraved system of apartheid — and to urge his fellow black South Africans to do the same — was an incredible gift to the nation he led.
Today’s South Africa is no blissful paradise, its gorgeous beaches, enthralling wildlife sanctuaries and stunning mountain vistas notwithstanding. The nation struggles with a staggering rate of violent crime. It has the world’s highest incidence of HIV infection. And it harbors an income inequality that would befit any feudal state.
Still, its people made the transition from apartheid without all-out civil war. It is not only Africa’s most successful economy, but also the 28th-largest in the world. Its democratic elections are widely believed to be fairly conducted. None of those successes was pre-ordained, and they were all given a major assist by the preternatural spirit of one man: Mandela.
In 1990, following his release from prison, I wrote newspaper dispatches from South Africa’s major cities and from poor, desperate, all-black townships. I witnessed the anxiety, the anticipation, the fear, the jubilation and the jockeying for political position that accompanied the collapse of apartheid.
As the old system fell apart, traditional black leaders clashed with Mandela’s African National Congress in a contest for dominance in the new order. There was much intrigue among the black factions, some of which erupted into violence. (It was fueled by the apartheid government, which secretly funded one faction’s attacks on the ANC).
In the end, Mandela was the one figure who could unite South Africa’s black majority. He won broad support because he had stood for so long — through 27 years of imprisonment — as a symbol of black defiance.