Mandela was just a man, and that made what he did extraordinary

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Nelson Mandela and John Carlin
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Nelson Mandela and John Carlin

Editor's note: John Carlin wrote the book "Playing the Enemy," on which the Clint Eastwood film "Invictus" was based. He also worked on the ESPN film "The 16th Man," also based on his book, and the PBS film "The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela." He was bureau chief for the London Independent in South Africa from 1989 to 1995.

LONDON -- I interviewed Nelson Mandela a month after he became president of South Africa at Pretoria’s Union Buildings, the seat of white power for generations. He said a lot of interesting things among them, that he meant to retire after one five-year presidential term, explaining that, diabolical as apartheid had been, he wished to be sensitive in his dealings with the white population, and not to offend them by abolishing national symbols close to their hearts.

But what stayed with me most from the interview was a brief encounter we both had with a white woman that revealed, more eloquently than words could, precisely how respectful he intended to remain towards the white population that colluded in the state’s oppression of him and his black compatriots for so long.

Ten minutes into the interview, there was a knock on the door, and a middle-aged white lady entered the presidential office carrying a tray with tea and mineral water. The instant he saw her, Mandela interrupted himself in midsentence and leapt to his feet. With a broad smile, he asked her how she was, and then introduced me, whereupon I, too, stood up and shook hands with her. Mandela thanked her profusely for the tea and water and did not sit down again until she had left the room.

That little incident was absolutely of a piece with the Mandela I got to know during the six years I worked as foreign correspondent in South Africa from 1989 to 1995, the epic years that included his release from prison and the transition from tyranny to democracy. I saw him up close in countless public events, had many brief chats with him, interviewed him half a dozen times and, for a book and a number of film documentaries, I spoke to most of the people who had known him best. What I saw was what the tea lady saw that morning of our interview: A man who combined majesty of bearing with respect for others; grandeur with folksy charm.

The fascinating thing here was that he extended such courtesy to someone who, as I later discovered, had been in the employment of previous white apartheid presidents. Further inquiry some years later for my book revealed that Mandela had asked all the white staff at the presidency to stay on when he took power; that all did stay, wooed by his charm; and all came to like and admire him far more than any of their white bosses. One large man, the chief of protocol, had worked in the job 13 years prior to Mandela’s arrival. He wept as he recalled Mandela’s many acts of kindness towards him.

I could almost write another book cataloging anecdotes of his unfailing considerateness towards his former enemies.

Towards all, save one.

And it is the story of his relationship with this person that calls into slight question the observation we are sure to hear again and again from commentators in these days following his death, about how wondrously lacking in bitterness he was after spending 27 years in jail. It is one of the oldest cliches around. Which does not mean it isn’t true. It is, largely. Mostly. But not entirely.

Mandela, as he was at pains to point out to those who strove to idolize him, was not a saint. He was a man and, as such, prey to normal human weakness, none more natural than harboring some portion of resentment towards those who imprisoned him and kept his black compatriots locked for nearly half a century in the vast prison of apartheid.

For the most part he kept such feelings under control or, at any rate, extremely well-hidden. It was an entirely political calculation on his part. It would not have been wise to have emerged from jail bristling with ill will towards the white minority who had kept all power to themselves not just since the foundation of the apartheid system of legal racial discrimination in 1948, but since the arrival of the first white settlers on the southern tip of Africa in 1652. To give his emotions free rein would have meant endangering his strategy of ending apartheid and establishing democracy in South Africa by the only means he believed could possibly work: by dialogue and racial reconciliation.

The funny thing the flawed, human thing was that the one visible object of whatever small measure of resentment Mandela retained was the man who set him free, the man with whom he negotiated apartheid’s end: South Africa’s last white president, F.W. de Klerk. Mandela had, at best, mixed feeling towards de Klerk. The rational part of his mind acknowledged the value of de Klerk’s role; but his instincts rebelled against his partner or at any rate, his most necessary accomplice in the complicated political process that led South Africa from tyranny to democracy. He didn’t really like de Klerk. He saw him as a smart enough, but ultimately slippery, small-minded lawyer who lacked the largeness of soul to grasp the depth of the iniquity to which he, as a long-standing servant of the apartheid system, had submitted South Africa’s black majority.

This was why, when he learned he and de Klerk had received the Nobel Peace Prize jointly in 1993, he was quietly outraged, confessing the extent of his distress only to his closest friends. One of these friends was George Bizos, a white man who had been one of his lawyers at the trial in 1964, at the conclusion of which he was condemned to life in prison. I interviewed Bizos for a book I wrote about Mandela, and what he told me was that Mandela felt not only that it was wrong that a politician who had dedicated the greater part of his life to upholding apartheid should receive the Nobel Prize, but also that it should have been awarded to him and to the entirety of the liberation organization he represented: the African National Congress.

But the more interesting, and mightily surprising, thing Bizos told me was that the Mandela mask, always so tightly worn, did actually slip once, and in public. What was more, when he and de Klerk went to Oslo, where the Nobel ceremony was held. It was not a televised event; there were apparently no journalists present. But he had a significant-sized audience before him.

The sequence of events, as Bizos, who accompanied Mandela to Oslo, told it, was this. When de Klerk’s turn came to give his Nobel acceptance speech, Mandela expected him to make some acknowledgement of apartheid’s cruelties and injustices, to make some sort of apology for white South Africa’s past sins. De Klerk did not. Instead he limited himself to saying that “mistakes” had been made on all sides. Bizos recalled looking at Mandela and seeing him shake his head.

That same evening Mandela and de Klerk attended an event at Oslo Cathedral. The ceremony began with a rendition of "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika," the old, solemn and powerfully moving anthem of black protest and liberation. As the song was being sung, Mandela glanced across at de Klerk and saw him chatting distractedly with his wife. Later that same night, at a dinner hosted by the prime minister of Norway before 150 guests, Mandela’s patience finally snapped. Wildly out of character, and entirely out of tune with the day’s celebratory mood, he let rip against apartheid, a system the point was lost on no one in the room with which his fellow Nobel laureate had colluded most of his life.

Bizos said he was aghast to hear such venom spill from his old friend’s lips. “He gave the most horrible detail of what happened to prisoners on Robben Island,” said Bizos, referring to the Alcatraz on the southern Atlantic where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in jail. He told a story, Bizos recalled, of prison warders on the island “burying a man in the sand up to his head and urinating on him. ... He told it as an example of the inhumanity there had been in this system, though he did actually stop short of saying ‘Look, here are the people who represented that system.’ ”

The message, though, was as loud and clear, and as deliberately insulting, as it was astonishing to those present, coming as it had from the man feted as the chief living practitioner on Earth of the virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation.

It astonished me, too, when I heard the story from Bizos. I interviewed Mandela one-on-one half a dozen times, I had numerous brief chats with him, I watched him give any number of speeches and press conferences and in the course of writing a book about him and more articles than I can remember, as well as working on three film documentaries about his life, I have spoken at length to most of the people who knew him best. Never once did I see him express any rancor towards anybody. Except de Klerk.

Apart from that story in Oslo, I did see him once in 1993 launch into a tirade against de Klerk, not a bitter one but a furious one at his perceived double-dealing in negotiations. And I did hear stories of the disdain Mandela felt for him.

With every other political enemy, or former enemy, that Mandela encountered, he was, I repeat, unfailingly courteous and respectful. Apart from those who worked for him directly in the presidential offices, I have spoken to the former head of the apartheid intelligence service, the former minister of justice, a former general who planned for some months to lead a terrorist movement of the far right against Mandela’s democratic enterprise. All three ended up adoring him, describing him as they might a cherished relative. The former intelligence chief referred to him not as “Mandela,” but as “the old man,” as if he were talking about his own father.

Maybe Mandela expected more of de Klerk, his partner in peacemaking. Maybe he saw a little too much of him and grew irritated by his lack of empathy for the predicament of black South Africans. Maybe he saw that de Klerk, clever and politically well-intentioned as he might have been, lacked greatness of heart. Or maybe he exhibited a certain capriciousness towards the man who, after all, did cede power to him without a fight. Otherwise, how does one explain the regard Mandela always expressed for de Klerk’s predecessor as president of South Africa, the far more ogrish and repressive P.W. Botha? A lot of Mandela’s closest allies never understood why he held Botha in more esteem than the manifestly more harmless de Klerk.

In that mystery, or inconsistency, or downright irrationality, we glimpse Mandela’s humanity, as we do even more forcefully when we reflect on that extraordinary outburst in Oslo. What this does is remind us that Mandela was not a Tibetan mystic, or a supernatural being, or a saint, but a flawed individual as prone to irrational behavior or to anger and impatience as the rest of us. To acknowledge that, yes, indeed, some atoms of bitterness did remain lodged in his heart is not to diminish his person or his achievement. The fact that he did have to battle to conquer his own demons is further evidence of the supreme quality of leadership he displayed, of the sacrifices he made and the self-control he exercised in pursuit of the prize he pursued all his life: democracy and justice in a country where black and white people could live as equals, in peace.

Nelson Mandela said of writer John Carlin when he left the country: “The way in which you wrote and the way in which you carried out your task in this country was absolutely magnificent … absolutely inspiring. You have been very courageous.”

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