Nelson Mandela, South Africa's anti-Apartheid fighter and statesman, has left an indelible mark on history. His loss cannot be overstated, writes Anton Enus.
It’s a time emblazoned on my consciousness, a hot day in February of 1990 when Nelson Mandela did the unthinkable: he walked out of prison a free man. With Winnie, his wife and fellow activist, at his side, Mandela showed his face to the world for the first time in decades. I felt the surge of excitement, although I was not privileged enough to be there in person as he took those fateful steps through the gates of Victor Verster prison in Paarl, where he had spent the last two years of his long incarceration.
It was particularly overwhelming because I had been one of the non-believers, a sceptical observer who just didn’t see any way out of the apartheid impasse. Having lived all my life to that point in South Africa and seen for myself the brutal intransigence of the Nationalist government that had ruled for more than four decades, I had reached a point of hopelessness. Nothing, I thought, could soften the white Afrikaner mindset which was premised on the laager mentality: a drawing in of the wagons against a perceived external threat. In this case, they saw themselves as Africa’s last bulwark against the communist onslaught. Everyone knew it was empty rhetoric designed to maintain white privilege in a country with a black majority. The Afrikaners had the support of the white voters, they had the military might to stamp out dissent and the relentless obstinacy of a people under threat.
What naysayers like myself had failed to take into account was Nelson Mandela. From the seclusion of his jail cell he had reached out to his apartheid oppressors, putting aside whatever personal feelings he held, and told them he was ready to start talking. The result, as we now all know, is a time of peace and democracy in South Africa: negotiated not imposed, embraced not merely tolerated.
It was in all respects a new era. From a reporter’s point of view it was a real eye-opener. I worked for the national broadcaster in Johannesburg, an institution controlled very closely by the establishment (read: government). The newsroom went from anal punctiliousness (every script vetted, every story sanitised lest it ran foul of the ‘official version’). Into our midst came a cohort of journalists and activists, many formerly in exile, and with them a breath of fresh air. Story ideas were debated on their merits rather than on their political acceptability to ideological masters. In other words, it became just like any other newsroom.
At some point in the years that followed, Nelson Mandela visited our Johannesburg newsroom in Auckland Park. It was truly an event! The newsroom quite palpably came to a standstill as he walked through, greeting everyone and exchanging small talk. He passed by me briefly, stopped, and shook my hand. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. It was the closest I ever got to him, not privileged like some of my colleagues who managed to interview him.
The extraordinary thing about him – and this is borne out by people who encounter him everywhere in the world – was his humility. On the one hand, without great effort he filled a room with his presence. It’s a mark of the man that he had this natural-born charisma. On the other, he conducted himself with great gentleness and quiet confidence.
On other occasions when I saw him, either at an event or on TV, he always made an effort to find the time to speak to everyone, not just the important people in the room. You would always see a shot of him stopping to exchange a pleasant word with the cleaning staff, security, the waiters. And not in the sense of the Duke of Kent speaking down to the ball boys and girls as he walked onto centre court at Wimbledon for the prize-giving. No, these were the actions of a man who had been in their ranks through the struggle, had been at the receiving end of rough treatment in prison, who had known the despair of being deprived of contact with his family. He was one of them.
I think it’s fair to say a gentle soul has departed, leaving all of us richer in spirit and more thoughtful about the world. I don’t usually attach much sentiment, let alone hero worship, to departed politicians. In this case, he was so much more. He was a visionary, he was a down-to-earth philosopher, he was a teacher. His loss, inevitable as it was, has left me bereft.