While there is no question that Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Alfred Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King were among the great men of the 20th century, greatness can be a relative thing and often is in the eyes of the beholder. By those lights, my nominee for one of the greatest men of the modern era is Nelson Mandela.
Mandela, who left this mortal coil on Thursday at age 95, had been in failing health for some time and was repeatedly hospitalized with a recurring lung ailment that stemmed, in all likelihood, from tuberculosis contracted during his 27-year imprisonment, much of it spent on Robben Island, the notorious apartheid-era prison. He had been largely absent from public life since 2004, a decade after he was elected South Africa's first black president and led the deeply divided nation into an era of truth and reconciliation that sought to give citizens of all races equal voice, and had not been seen in public since the World Cup soccer final in Johannesburg in July 2010.
As a friend said, "it was time to let him go," yet he had stubbornly hung on.
Roosevelt and Churchill, of course, oversaw the global effort to overthrow fascism, although the peace they fashioned was deeply flawed. Einstein's imprecations regarding the nuclear menace were borne out, while Gandhi led India to independence, employing the non-violent civil disobedience that King and later Mandela embraced.* * * * *
Yet it is Mandela's story that resonates most deeply for me, in part because he was the last survivor among those leading lights, and because I directed the coverage of his release from prison, the end of apartheid and the wrenching early years of his presidency for a big-city newspaper that recognized the enormity of these historic events and dedicated substantial resources to bringing them to its readers. A consequence of my hands-on involvement was that I understood early on that it would be South Africa's black majority, deeply fractured because of tribal and political differences, that would be the greatest impediment to realizing Mandela's vision. Time and events have proven me right.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a Xhosa born to the Thembu royal family. He was given "Madiba" as a clan name, circumcised as a 16-year-old in a Bantu rite of passage marking his manhood, but refused a traditional tribal marriage. He attended a Methodist boarding school and then elite Fort Hare, a black college that was the incubator for no fewer than four other African presidents, and eventually made his way to Johannesburg where he was taken under the wing of Walter Sisulu, father figure of the African National Congress.* * * * *
Not unlike Ho Chi Minh and Vietnamese liberation, Mandela embraced the teachings of Karl Marx and aspects of white Communism, but believed the struggle in his homeland was, first and foremost, by and for black Africans.
While imprisoned on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town, he grew vegetables and cultivated his image with equal care.
It is not widely known that he also quietly reached out to the apartheid regime in anticipation of his eventual release, and met secretly with Niel Barnard, the head of its intelligence service. Two other men were delegated by the ANC in exile to talk with Barnard -- Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, Mandela's successors as president. Unlike the great man himself, they have made themselves the centers of personality and have been hostile to the notion that diversity of opinion and tolerance of dissent must be at the heart of the young South African democracy.
Biographer Ricard Stengel has written that "Prison taught Mandela how to deal with limits and how to govern his emotions; at the same time it taught him what was limitless, which was, broadly, the potential of humanity to do the right thing. Be constructive, Mandela advises, be pragmatic, be generous; look for the good in others. Mandela cultivated the mix of bluntness and courtesy Afrikaners (the ruling white minority group) respected. He managed to disarm the apartheid president, P. W. Botha, a harsh man, 'with a robust handshake and a wide smile.' "
It is therefore not surprising that Mandela brilliantly handled the transition between his release from prison in 1990 and majority rule in 1994, while averting racial bloodshed. Although in the end it was Mandela's extraordinary magnanimity that carried the day, less remarked on is that despite South Africa’s loathsome anti-black heritage, there were solid institutions to underpin the transition to democracy, including a parliament and electoral system, independent courts and a free press.
In 1993, Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. de Klerk, the last apartheid era president, an honor that rankles to this day, but then the Peace Prize has been irrelevant for me since 1993 when Henry Kissinger, a war criminal, shared the prize with Le Duc Tho, the Vietnamese revolutionary and diplomat, who had the class to decline it.
Mandela's legacy is not complete without acknowledging that Africa is becoming more democratic in his wake.
When the Berlin Wall fell in late 1989, a few months before Mandela's release from prison, only three of sub-Saharan Africa's 48 countries were democratic. Now, 21 are seen as as functioning democracies, with another six regarded as semi-democratic.
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For much of Mandela's life, personal happiness proved to be elusive.
He left his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, after she became a Jehovah’s Witness and accused him of being an adulterer who abandoned his children and beat her, a charge he denied. His second marriage to Winnie Madikizela was fraught because of her proclivity for corrupt and scandalous conduct. One of their sons was estranged from him and killed in a car crash in 1969. Another was an alcoholic who died of AIDS in 2005.
He finally wed Graça Machel, the widow of the Mozambican president and former ANC ally Samora Machel, who survives him, as do three daughters from his first two marriages, 17 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. An ugly battle over control of his legacy, image and estate broke out as his health deteriorated, with two of his daughters suing to get access to a trust fund that he set up for his descendants.
President Obama decided against a personal visit during his 2013 Africa tour, instead delivering his respects in a private meeting with Mandela’s family. "I . . . reaffirmed the profound impact that his legacy has had in building a free South Africa, and in inspiring people around the world — including me," he said afterwards. "That’s a legacy that we must all honor in our own lives."
South African politicians were not so solicitous. They invaded Mandela's privacy and exploited his frailty in order to be seen in his hallowed company, while squabbles have flared up over the TV rights to his funeral.
"Everyone wants a piece of the Madiba magic,” said William Gumede, who has written extensively about a man who became a global symbol of forgiveness and the struggle for justice and equality. "This is just a preview of what will come when he goes."
PHOTOGRAPH BY SUSAN WINTERS COOK