Even in this age of cynicism and suspicion, there are still people whose integrity and stature are beyond question, people whose very association or encouragement of a cause give that cause a new respect in people's eyes. At the back of my mind, I must admit I was always wondering how Nelson Mandela got himself into this elite circle. At a first glance, his resume does not seem to be one that would elevate one outside of his own country. Raised to become counsellor to the young Thembu king, ends up being a young lawyer in Johannesburg, and comes to the conclusion that strict non-violence would not be sufficient to overthrow the wall of segregation and injustice, and thus leads a campaign of sabotage that leads to his imprisonment. Certainly the stuff of national fame, I thought, but no more. But this beatific aura had already surrounded him even before he was released from prison, as the entire anti-apartheid struggle was able to rally itself around the release of this one men. In fact, there were whispered suggestions that perhaps he should be assassinated as soon as he came out from prison and the assassination blamed on the government, lest he ruin everyone's hopes and expectations by being a mere mortal; at least dead the myth would remain, so the reasoning went.
But this aura did not come from nowhere, I am finally glad to discover. Locked away in prison, and extremely limited in his connection with the outside world, Mandela nevertheless had begun shaping the direction of the apartheid struggle solely through the strength of his own personal example. He was the recognised leader of the prisoners on Robben Island, and under his guidance all the different factions of prisoners - the ANC, the more stridently militant Pan African Congress, the Communist party, whites, Indians and others came together as one; as most of the leaders were in prison, this came to have a tremendous effect on the unity of the apartheid struggle as a whole. He would always take great pains to ensure people were not left humiliated or marginalised - this applied to all the other factions, but also in his approach to the prison warders. He learnt Afrikaans, which was seen as the language of oppression, in prison. Often he would stop his fellow prisoners from kneejerk reaction to some injustice in the anticipation that he could get the needed thing in time, and he could do it whilst at the same time procuring a friend out of those that stood in his way. His reaching out to the warders ultimately led to contacts further up the chain of command, all the way up to the minister of justice. Most of all his sense of intuition was second to none - he knew the importance of magnanimity but at the same time knew the core areas where any compromise would have meant suffocation and death. In 1985, he was offered release to Transkei, one of the 'Bantustans' that had been set up within South Africa as a sop to world opinion, and the area where he was born. He refused, telling the people of South Africa that 'your freedom is my freedom' in a famous speech read out by his daughter. However, his intuition also told him to begin negotiations with the government, even without the explicit backing of his fellow prisoners.
Along with the great black leaders of America in the 1960's, Mandela shattered the illusion that a black man was not up to the task of statemanship - even as he walked free from prison, his reputation for statecraft was second to none solely as a result of his activities within prison walls. In the years that followed, he had much need of it. There was a very real and present danger that the country would be rent asunder by violence and bloodshed, not only from white extremists, but also as a result of violence between the ANC and the Inkatha Party, aided and abetted by the apartheid government and essentially pitting the members of South Africa's two main tribes against each other other. When Chris Hani, a prominent black leader, was shot by a white assassin, everyone waited to hear what Mandela would say. The atmosphere was such that a speech blaming the government could have been the spark for a bloody revolution. However, with characteristic humility, Mandela begged for calm and noted that a white woman had risked her life to provide evidence that would identify the killer. Similarly, reaching out to the leaders of the Inkatha Party, he gave one concession after another in an attempt to convince them to join the political process. Again, his intuition told him what was important; harmony at this crucial and fragile stage.
I remember listening to a South African delegate giving a speech at an opening ceremony of the World Harmony Run in New York: he recalled as a child how rugby was seen as a white man's sport, and no black man would be seen dead wearing the Springbok jersey, the jersey of the national side. But in 2005, the rugby World Cup came to South Africa and who should be presenting the trophy but Mandela himself, wearing that same jersey! Looking back, this one small gesture led to a noticeable thaw in relations between blacks and whites in South Africa, and the speaker concluded by telling us he now has a Springbok jersey himself.
- Nelson Mandela at writespirit.net