Being in the presence of greatness

2010-02-11 00:00

WHEN you are in the presence of a truly great person such as Nelson Mandela, there is no need to analyse what greatness is, nor to work out how he came to be so great.

Being in Mandela’s presence is akin to listening to a very good orchestra with a very good conductor playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He creates a magical environment that accommodates and encourages complete expression of one’s humanity.

I consider myself very privileged to have known Mandela, as a journalist, as a South African, and as a human being. I interviewed him on many occasions as a foreign correspondent, as a South African newspaper editor, and as a political editor. At least six of these interviews were major hours- long discussions and there were many smaller interviews, encounters at state banquets, meet-ups on the election trail, and grip-and-grins with the many celebrities who made the long pilgrimage to meet him.

But there is one interview that stands above all the rest. It took place nearly a year after Mandela stepped down as president, when I was editor of the Johannesburg newspaper the Sunday Independent. I had noticed that during the preceding several months, Mandela had become more philosophical and introspective in his public remarks, and I asked if I could speak with him, on the record, about what he would like his legacy to be. He agreed. He was 82 at the time.

I always felt that there was something more to Mandela’s goals than achieving a political victory over apartheid and its rulers, although that was certainly a monumental achievement. I felt he had a higher goal: to persuade an entire nation to come around to his innate belief in a broader humanity based on service to the community and the acknowledgment of others’ needs and wellbeing as the basis for one’s own existence.

Although a much-abused word these days, Mandela’s goal embodies what is known in African culture as ubuntu. It is a philosophy that underlies the warm relationship between Mandela and his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and perhaps it was Tutu who described ubuntu best in his 1999 book, No Future Without Forgiveness: “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

How did Mandela, a very angry young man by any measure, achieve this level of ubuntu? In the “summing-up interview” I conducted with Mandela, which was published in the Christian Science Monitor in 2000, he identified several processes in his life that had changed him and made it possible for him to achieve the goals he had set for himself. Most of these processes, he said, took place during his 27 years in prison.

Mandela’s biographer Anthony Sampson, who knew Mandela before he went to prison in 1963, noted the remarkable transformation in the man who emerged from jail, compared with the impulsive, quick- tempered activist whom Sampson knew in the late fifties.

Mandela conceded to me that in those days the loss of dignity and the humiliation he suffered under apartheid sparked angry reactions rather than rational analysis and discussion. But in prison, Mandela said, he had time to think and to listen to the stories of those around him.

He had time to think about those people in his life who had helped him, and how he had often failed to acknowledge their generosity and compassion. After his release from prison, he often went out of his way to acknowledge publicly the generosity of others.

He had time to read the biographies of other famous people whose lives had changed humanity for the better. In doing so, he learnt that difficulties and disaster destroyed some people but positively transformed others. He said the people he admired most were those who were able to turn disaster into success.

He also told me that the prison experience had taught him to respect even the most ordinary people, and that he was always surprised how wrong one could be in judging people before speaking to them and finding out their unique story.

Finally, he told me that a true leader is one who thinks about the poor 24 hours a day and who knows in his or her heart that poverty is the biggest threat to society.

When United States President Bill Clinton paid a state visit to South Africa in 1998, he went with Mandela — with whom he had a natural rapport and developed a close friendship — to Robben Island to visit the jail cell where Mandela spent 19 years of his life, virtually his whole middle age.

In a 2004 interview with the Guardian before the publication of his autobiography, My Life, Clinton said Mandela had counselled him and stood by him throughout the Monica Lewinsky affair and had helped him save his marriage and get past the effects of the scandal.

Clinton said that while they were alone together in his old cell, Mandela had told him that he forgave his oppressors because if he had not, it would have destroyed him.

Mandela said that his jailers had taken the best years of his life, that he didn’t get to see his children grow up. They had abused him mentally and physically, and they destroyed his marriage. But despite this, Mandela would not let himself live in anger, because he would not let them take his mind and his heart.

Mandela insists that if you want to achieve your goals in life, you cannot afford to engage in anger and you cannot waste your life fighting with the enemy. You should rather want to create the conditions in which you can move everybody toward your goals.

And that is exactly what he did in 1995, when he engineered a massive shift in white public opinion by throwing his presidential weight behind the overwhelmingly white national rugby team, a potent symbol of the former apartheid regime. It was a watershed moment for South Africa. The Springboks won the Rugby World Cup, but — as John Carlin describes in his brilliant book Playing the Enemy — Mandela won the country.


• Nelson Mandela: A Life in Photographs, with text by John Battersby, is published by Sterling Publishers.

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