Tony Blair, Bono, Bill Clinon, Muhammad Ali and Kofi Annan about the man who represents justice and reconciliation.
Tijn Touber| November 2006 issue
Rolihlahla Mandela was born in 1918 in Mvezo, a town in southeast South Africa, the son of a prominent adviser to the king of the Thembu tribe. As a law student he took on the name of “Nelson” Mandela, and became quite interested in politics. He joined the African National Congress (ANC), which advocated equal rights for black people in the white-dominated society. After finishing his studies, he joined a law firm that offered legal aid to blacks who had very few judicial rights in South African courts.
In 1956, Mandela was arrested with 150 others and accused of treason. The trial, which took several years, ended in acquittal for everyone. But in 1962, he was arrested again and accused of sabotage and plotting to overthrow the government. By that point in the anti-apartheid struggle he had abandoned his earlier non-violent principles, and become leader of the militant wing of the ANC. He was sentenced to life in prison, which he was largely to serve at Robben Island, near Cape Town.
In 1985, he declined an offer of freedom conditional on his willingness to renounce the armed struggle for black resistance. International pressure for his release continued to increase and when Frederik de Klerk became president of South Africa and carefully phased out the apartheid regime, he released Nelson Mandela on February 11, 1990, after 27 years in prison. Mandela became the chairman of the ANC, was voted in as South African president at age 75 in the nation’s first free elections, received the Nobel Peace Prize and—above all—became a worldwide symbol of justice and reconciliation.
This month he is honoured with the unique book Nelson Mandela, which includes tributes from heads of state and celebrities. These photographs and passages were taken from the book.
Forgiveness as a winning strategy
By Bill Clinton, former U.S. president
“Mandela made a grand, elegant, dignified exit from prison and it was very, very powerful for the world to see. But as I watched him walking down that dusty road, I wondered whether he was thinking about the last 27 years, whether he was angry all over again. Later, many years later, I had a chance to ask him. I said, ‘Come on, you were a great man, you invited your jailers to your inauguration, you put your pressures on the government. But tell me the truth. Weren’t you really angry all over again?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid. After all I’ve not been free in so long. But,’ he said, ‘when I felt that anger well up inside of me I realized that if I hated them after I got outside that gate then they would still have me.’ And he smiled and said, ‘I wanted to be free so I let it go.’ It was an astonishing moment in my life. It changed me.
“He’s got so much to teach us about forgiveness. It isn’t about being soft-headed and kind-hearted and essentially weak or forgetful although the Bible says God both forgives and forgets. Mandela found that forgiveness was a strategy for survival. Because he found a forgiving heart under the most adverse circumstances, because he learned to hate the apartheid cause without hating the white South Africans, he had space left inside to learn and grow and become great.
“To me he represents a great political leader. He had the discipline to stay the course for almost three decades, through enormous punishment, to achieve the political objective he sought. And he did it in a way that, in the end, had the support of people across the racial divide. In the process he freed not only black South Africa but, as Martin Luther King said about America, he freed white South Africans, too. It’s a terrible burden oppressing someone else; it’s like being in chains yourself.
“What makes Mandela so special is that he’s a real human being. He laughs, he cries, he gets mad, he fell in love with Graça Machel. He’s got a real life. And the fact that he is so flesh-and-blood real makes his greatness and his sacrifice and his wisdom and his courage in the face of all that has happened to him even more remarkable. He never pretended to be somebody who didn’t like soccer or wouldn’t like to be able to go to a boxing match again. He’s not just great: He is a good man. Not because he is perfect—he still has his flashes of anger and regret—but in the big moment, in the big ways, there is nobody like him.”
The triumph of imagination
By Bono, U2 singer and activist
“If rock ’n’ roll has anything at the core, if it’s about anything at all, it’s surely about liberation. Whether it’s sexual liberation or spiritual liberation, just getting free of yourself and your limitations seems to be part of the theme of rock ’n’ roll. So it’s natural that people in that music would be in awe of Nelson Mandela. He’s cooler than any rock star or any hip hop star you are ever going to meet. Cool is not something I generally look up to but he actually has it.
“When I go to meet him it’s quite clear who is the rock star—and yet he’s consistently trying to shrink himself. ‘Why would you come to see an old man like me!’ He’s always turning everything on its head. He’s so very playful. I’ve always thought that laughter is the evidence of freedom and there’s comedy in those eyes. They’re evidence of life and liberty and I’m sure they were when they were behind bars.
“The power of words and the way ‘Madiba’ [as he is affectionately known] puts them together cannot be underestimated and as it turned out, language was the ANC’s most lethal weapon. The world discovered the potential of South Africa through the poetry of Madiba’s speeches and his communiqués. His speech at the Rivonia Trial in which he said ‘I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination’ even then implied a future. He’d already jumped ahead in his own mind and was saying ‘In the new nation we will do things differently.’ It’s imagination: It’s not seen to be believed, it’s believe it to be seen.”
A blessed friend
By Muhammad Ali, former boxing champion
“What makes Nelson Mandela so exceptional, what sets me in awe of him, is his tremendous energy and courage. He is uncompromising in his efforts to combat adversity and injustice, not just in South Africa but everywhere. He has always inspired me to think beyond myself, to think of people in the wider world as part of a common humanity. I am blessed by his friendship. I love him for what he has accomplished, for what he has been through, for his journey forward. He remains a hallmark of what it really means to give selflessly of oneself, which is indeed a gift for us all.”
A giant in moral stature, but not too big to make a joke
By Tony Blair, prime minister of Great Britain
“Meeting Mandela is like meeting no other politician or no other person. He has an extraordinary manner, at once very humble and ever so slightly unnerving because he’s always making jokes. He’s got a very naughty sense of humour and he was very funny around my little boy Leo. When he comes to Downing Street, he makes a point of shaking hands with everyone—the people who bring the tea, the people who are at the door, the police—and he always jokes with them. Actually I think he mocks his own position a bit; he’s fundamentally a very rational human being and therefore takes it all with a pinch of salt.
“In one of our early conversations I asked Mandela whether he did not feel hatred towards the people who imprisoned him during the most active and formative years of his life. I remember him saying, ‘What’s the point? That’s how the country was at that time, but now it’s different.’ He was almost impatient to get on and talk about what was going to happen now. It is that absence of bitterness and the extraordinary desire to heal divisions that marks him out for people and why I think they feel they can invest so much affection and admiration in him. It’s not just the fact that he spent so many years in prison—political martyrdom can happen, sadly, to a lot of people—but what marked him out was the magnanimity in the way he came through it.
“There are conservative politicians here who will talk of Mandela in awed tones, who, in the 1980s, if they were not actually accusing him of being a terrorist, were opposing sanctions. One of the things he did was allow people to forget their own involvement and because he didn’t recriminate, they feel they can be part of it too, whatever position they had at the time.
“Even when there have been areas where we have strongly disagreed, like Iraq. He’s not someone who would be comfortable with the use of force; I think he’s seen and done enough of that in his own life. Yet, he’s had a very good analysis of what the problems were from my perspective as a leader and has never been personally difficult about these things. On the contrary, he has offered good advice all the way through. In a funny way he reminded me of the Pope in this. Pope John Paul was also totally opposed to the war, but similarly had a very subtle and perceptive view of what it was like to be faced with these decisions. Even if they disagreed politically, they were going to be personally supportive and that makes a lot of difference. It is then a position from which they can influence the aftermath because you think, ‘These are not people who just want to make a political point. They’re actually just trying to work their way through it and do the right thing.’
“Mandela’s strength of leadership on the whole question of Africa has been very important. He’s passionate about Africa but also its responsibility to change itself. He is one of the toughest on the need for strong measures against corruption and has really no time for any wallowing in the past or any attempt to justify repression or bad government on the basis of colonialism.
“Mandela will remain a great icon. The fact that a black man is the most respected figure in the world is also part of what he has brought about. The fall of apartheid was not only important for South Africa and for the world, but it also symbolized the last bastion of all that terrible bullshit you used to get about genetics. When apartheid fell, it was as if racism all round the world was suddenly put in the past. It’s not that racism doesn’t exist today, but it isn’t countenanced as part of respectable society. I think he will be seen as a symbol of equality between the races in a multiracial world where people are respected irrespective of the colour of their skin.”
The most admired man in the world
By Kofi Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations
“People often ask me what difference one person can make in the face of injustice, conflict, human-rights violations, mass poverty and disease. I answer by citing the courage, tenacity, dignity and magnanimity of Nelson Mandela. I cite his lifelong struggle against apartheid, and his steadfast refusal to compromise his beliefs during long years of incarceration. I cite his inspired leadership, upon his release, in the peaceful transition to a genuine, multiracial, multi-party democracy firmly founded on a constitution protecting fundamental human rights.
“I cite his efforts, as president of the Republic of South Africa, to create the political, economic and social conditions needed to bring Africa the peace and prosperity it needs and deserves. Above all, I cite his ready willingness to embrace and reconcile with those who persecuted him the most, and the grace with which he stuck to his promise to serve only one presidential term of office.
“He continues to inspire millions of people and several generations throughout the globe, by continuing to fight for reconciliation before recrimination, healing before bitterness, peace before conflict. To this day, Madiba remains probably the single most admired, most respected figure in the entire world.”
Blackbirch Press, ISBN 1410305430