By Toronto Star Journalists
With the death of Nelson Mandela, the world has lost one of its great visionaries, a leader whose influence extends to every corner of the Earth, and whose legacy is scattered in the souls of the millions inspired by his example. To celebrate his life, Star Dispatches releases this special commemorative issue, which includes the Star’s best journalism about Mandela, from award-winning reporters such as Oakland Ross, Bill Schiller and Rosie DiManno. A dozen pieces include Mandela’s seminal statement from the prisoner dock at the opening of his trial in 1964, immediate reportage and standout pieces from the archives: a soaring obituary, indelible first meetings and an eyewitness account of his 1990 release from prison. Mandela: The Last Great Statesman is an important, and inspirational, read.
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Mandela: The Last Great Statesman
He was an idealist in an age of cynicism.
A man who dared to dream.
Who said publicly that he was prepared to die for his ideals — and meant it.
How many politicians could say that today?
At every turn, Nelson Mandela confounded the world: he stood up against the racist order that prevailed over his times, withstood 27½ years in prison, negotiated the terms of his release, persuaded a government to relinquish power and never uttered an angry word against his jailers.
Instead, he persuaded them to join hands with him and shape a new South Africa.
Nelson Mandela was the world’s last great statesman.
We were privileged to live during his lifetime.
He was not a saint — and insisted to friends he did not wish to be remembered as one. After all, his middle name was Rolihlahla, which means, “stirring up trouble.”
Thank God he did.
Born on a hillside in a remote part of South Africa in the early 20th century, Mandela was not a natural-born leader. He was a self-taught one. First learning by observing his early mentor and lifelong friend Oliver Tambo, later learning from books and intense self-reflection.
His biographer Anthony Sampson, who first met him in a basement bar in downtown Johannesburg in the 1950s, once told me he never dreamt Mandela would become the leader of the African National Congress — let alone of South Africa.
In those days, Sampson said, Mandela was built like a boxer with a personality to match. He was friendly, but chippy. “I didn’t think — and I believe most people didn’t think — that he would become the leader of South Africa.
“He appeared headstrong and was very independent. He was quite a defensive character, really. Of course he was dedicated and brave. But he didn’t seem to be at peace with himself.”
He wasn’t: he was angry. But jail would allow him that peace — and much more.
As Mandela wrote to his then-wife, Winnie, in 1975, “The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself.”
At the time, he still had 15 more years of jail time ahead of him. He would eventually come to know himself well.
Desmond Tutu told me in an interview that he believed Mandela’s years behind bars were by far the most crucial in his life, helping to shape him as a leader.
“His leadership was forged in the furnace of adversity,” said Tutu, an Anglican archbishop and human rights activist. “I believe suffering can be a very important ingredient in leadership. I believe it deepened him.”
Mandela did suffer, not from physical beatings — he was spared that in jail — but from emotional pain and guilt. He missed the funerals of his mother and eldest son. He blamed himself for the suffering that his second wife, Winnie, and their children endured at the hands of the apartheid state.
But throughout it all, he kept his intellectual focus on higher ground: what did he need to do to achieve the dream of a free and democratic South Africa, that imagined country in which “all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities?” Suasion, he decided, not bullets, would win the day. He would persuade people — by the power, rightness and rationality of his ideas — to commit to the pursuit of his democratic dream. Over the span of his incarceration, from August 1962, when he was arrested in Howick Falls, Natal province, until February 1990, when he was released in Cape Town, he was offered his “freedom” six separate times, the most famous coming in 1985, at a time when much of the world had all but forgotten him.
It was then that “The Big Crocodile,” South African president P.W. Botha, promised to set Mandela free. All he had to do was renounce violence as a political weapon.
As a younger man Mandela had reluctantly signed on to violence. Frustrated by successive white governments that had rejected his appeals for a national convention on the future of the country, Mandela helped found the military wing of the ANC in 1961. It was called Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation. It began by attacking government buildings but never really earned a reputation for sustained bloodshed.
Umkhonto’s most effective weapon was its ability to instil fear. And so in 1985, after Mandela had spent 23 long years in jail, Botha offered him the keys to his cell — if he would call off the “armed struggle.”
But in a letter smuggled out of prison and read aloud by his daughter Zindzi to a packed stadium in Soweto, Mandela displayed his jaw-dropping resolve and unshakable commitment to his dream of a free people.
“Only free men can negotiate,” he wrote of Botha’s offer. “Prisoners cannot enter into contracts.
“I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated.”
Then he added three simple words that would rattle down every corridor of power within the apartheid state. “I will return.”
The crowd did not erupt in applause. Instead, it sat in stunned silence — then rose together to sing the black national anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika” (God Bless Africa).
Those words from Mandela that day were his first to reach the broad public in more than 20 years, since his famous speech in the prisoner’s dock in Pretoria in 1964, in which he vowed that he was “prepared to die” for his ideals.
Tutu, who was there that day in the Soweto stadium, recalled the response of the people as one of astonishment, as if to say, “Man, he really is the kind of person we always believed he was.” “They had not been disillusioned,” said Tutu. “He was not an idol with feet of clay.”
And return he did.
On a sultry day on the tip of Africa in February 1990, Nelson Mandela strode from Victor Verster prison, with then-wife Winnie by his side, exactly as he had wanted to: on his own two feet, on his own terms, making his long march to freedom almost complete.
Four years later, in the first free, democratic elections in the history of the country, millions of people rose before dawn to stand for hours in endless, serpentine lines to cast ballots and restore their dignity.
When the counting was done, the prisoner became president, and the racist regime was replaced with the flowering of what Tutu would call “the rainbow nation.”
Ushered into office, Mandela brought with him his unique brand of ubuntu, an African word that speaks to a concern for others, that spirit of compassion and humanity that had guided his dream from the beginning.
National pride was restored, a rebuilding program was launched and South Africa — once an international pariah — was welcomed back into the family of nations.
They were heady days.
Recently, however, even as Mandela lay dying, South Africa was steeped in crisis. Mandela’s legacy of principle and “the people before all” — his signature brand of ubuntu — has been all but squandered.
Sadly, the country is now led by lesser men, men who walk, as Tutu once told me, on feet of clay. Tutu has said that he will not vote for the ruling African National Congress in the next election. He cannot. Steeped in scandal and self-interest, the ANC has wandered too far from the spirit of ubuntu.
And what, one might ask, would Mandela do? On that warm February evening in 1990, I watched in awe as a free Mandela stood on the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall, bathed in the orange glow of tungsten floodlights, and proclaimed to the world, “I am a loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress . . . ”
His release was one of the most joyous moments of the 20th century, perhaps the clearest triumph of good over evil in our time.
But the sad truth, the heartbreaking reality, is that the ANC of Mandela’s day, the one to which he pledged his allegiance, a movement once led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Chief Albert Luthuli and others, is gone.
Goodness has given way to greed. The plundering and looting of public funds has become the norm. And contrary to the proclamation set out in South Africa’s famous Freedom Charter, forged in 1955, that “the people shall govern,” the people today have been left behind.
The country’s education system lies in ruins, 25 per cent of South Africans are unemployed, and 64 per cent of black South Africans live in poverty.
ANC leaders, President Jacob Zuma chief among them, have become objects of scorn.
As Mandela clung to life in Pretoria, Zuma’s government was under scathing siege in the nation’s Parliament for incompetence and corruption.
If Zuma and the ANC hope to turn their party’s dire circumstances around — and save the country — they will have to look to Mandela and relearn his extraordinary lessons of leadership.