Friday, December 06, 2013

What made Nelson Mandela great

"But in jail -- especially for those who stayed in single cells -- you had enough opportunity to sit down and think," he said.

What made Nelson Mandela great
By John Battersby
December 5, 2013

Nelson Mandela, the prisoner-turned-president who reconciled South Africa after the end of apartheid, died on Thursday, December 5, according to the country's president, Jacob Zuma. Mandela was 95.

Editor's note: John Battersby served as a correspondent for The New York Times (1987-89) and the Christian Science Monitor (1989-96) before, during and after South Africa's transition to democracy. He was editor of The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg from 1996 to 2001. He interviewed Mandela on numerous occasions and is coauthor of "Nelson Mandela: A Life in Photographs" (Sterling, 2009) and author of the afterword in the updated version of "Mandela: the Authorized Biography" (Harper Collins, 2011).

(CNN) -- Nelson Mandela was always mindful that his leadership role in the liberation of South Africa from apartheid might not have been possible if he had not been imprisoned.

"It is possible that if I had not gone to jail and been able to read and listen to the stories of many people. ... I might not have learned these things," Mandela said of the insights that he gained during his 27 years in jail.

In an interview less than a year after he had stepped down as the country's first black president, Mandela shared with me reflections of how prison changed him.

He said that reading the biographies of great leaders who had been able to overcome their shortcomings and rise to do great things had inspired him. He said it also helped him to realize that behind every seemingly ordinary person lay the potential of greatness.

"I have been surprised a great deal sometimes when I see somebody who looks less than ordinary, but when you talk to the person and they open their mouths, they are something completely different," he said.

Mandela said that prison gave him time to think about the times when he had failed to acknowledge people who had been kind to him.

Mandela said that at the height of the struggle against apartheid, he and other leaders were understandably angry at the humiliation and loss of dignity of those who suffered under the unjust policy. It meant their actions were driven by anger and emotion rather than by reflection and consultation.

"But in jail -- especially for those who stayed in single cells -- you had enough opportunity to sit down and think," he said.

There was time to listen to the stories of people who were highly educated and who were widely traveled and experienced. "When they told of their experiences, you felt humbled," he said.

Mandela said that he had learned that when you had the moral high ground, it was better to sit down and talk to people and persuade them of the correctness of your cause.

"If you have an objective in life, then you want to concentrate on that and not engage in infighting with your enemies," he said. "You want to create an atmosphere where you can move everybody toward the goal you have set for yourself," Mandela said.

In his twilight, Mandela was at pains to publish and acknowledge his weaknesses and shortcomings in his family life, in his relationships with women and his first wife, Evelyn. He was keen to dispel any notion of sainthood that might be bestowed on him.

He also spoke increasingly about the importance of changing oneself.

"One of the most difficult things is not to change society -- but to change yourself," Mandela said in 1999 at a tribute to billionaire businessman Douw Steyn who had made his Johannesburg residence available to Mandela as a retreat after his prison release in 1990.

Mandela had given similar advice to wife Winnie in a letter written to her in 1981 after she had been jailed by the apartheid regime. Mandela noted that there were qualities "in each one of us" that form the basis of our spiritual life and that we can change ourselves by observing our reactions to the unfolding of life.

Ten years later, Mandela said that it gave him a feeling of fulfillment to see that Douw Steyn had changed and had learned to share his resources with the poor.

"It enables me to go to bed with an enriching feeling in my soul and the belief that I am changing myself" by reconciling with former adversaries, Mandela said.

I believe that the essence of Mandela's greatness was to change himself fundamentally during his period in jail and emerge as a potent leader and example for all humanity.

Opinion: Nelson Mandela saved my life

The reflections took me back to the extraordinary day of Mandela's release. The day the legend became a man. Even now, the moment seems frozen in time.

It was February 11, 1990, and the African sun shone from a clear blue sky on a windless summer's day in Cape Town. About an hour's drive from the city, the international media thronged around the entrance of a neat prison warder's house to await the emergence of one of the century's most iconic figures...

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