The Nelson Mandela I knew … and loved

Dec. 15, 2013 @ 03:12 PM

The Nelson Mandela I knew became beloved by me, not so much for the grand gestures, although he was a master at political theatre, but for the lesser known acts that revealed a truly human genius for Ubuntu – the awareness that his life was inextricably bound up with the lives of all his fellow human beings, especially his enemies. He was the great includer; nothing was too much trouble if he could cajole or charm another opponent into friendship.

This man who would not bend an inch in his determination to win freedom for his people, nor to be humiliated by the cruelty of his prison guards, yet who said to his comrades as soon as they arrived on the island, ‘Chaps, these Afrikaners may be brutal, but they are human beings. We need to understand them and touch the human being inside them, and win them.’ And did...

This man who, on behalf of the one Muslim among them, badgered the prison authorities literally for years – six, I believe – until they at last yielded and granted permission for Ahmed Kathrada to walk the 50 yards outside the prison entrance to pray in the Kramat (a holy place commemorating a Muslim Imam exiled to the Island by the Dutch in the 1740s). The whole Rivonia group accompanied him...

This man who, when former spouse Winnie shamed the Mandela name by her involvement in the kidnapping of some young men in Soweto and the killing of one of them, struggled to understand the role of his church in the drama and criticized our actions from his prison cell. And who, when we managed to send him a true record of what had happened, sent a personal apology via his lawyer, requesting ‘forgiveness for having misjudged you...’

This man, who in his first Parliamentary speech as President, announced that nursing mothers and children under 6 would receive free health care, “whatever had to be done to pay for it...”

This man, who, when he invited the spouses and widows of former white presidents/prime ministers to tea, received news that Betsy Verwoerd, widow of the most virulent racist of them all, had “diplomatic flu,” decided to surprise her in her whites-only redoubt instead, arriving in his helicopter and knocking on her door, and appearing later with her in a smiling photograph…

This man who, when told by his staff that they were changing the name of the Parliamentary office building named after Hendrik Verwoerd, suggested they hold off until Verword’s widow had passed on. ‘There is no need to hurt her unnecessarily. It can wait…’

This man who, when told that one of his personal armed bodyguards had links with a far right-wing racist group and had been removed, said, “I don’t think we should do that. He is young and immature and it will destroy him. Let’s give him another chance …”

This man, who when we presented him with our list of nominated Truth Commissioners for him to make the final cut, asked first, “Have we sufficient women on the list? We must have gender equity…”  And when we told him that we had been able to find only one candidate of integrity from strife-torn KwaZulu Natal, he disregarded the process and just went ahead and appointed a Methodist bishop from the region, knowing that unless KZN was better represented, the Truth Commission would not be accepted there...

This man, who when I led a small delegation to meet with him about the crisis of guns and killing going on in 1994, came shuffling into the grand conference room next to his Presidential office in Pretoria wearing an old pair of slippers. He sat down and said, “I’m tired Peter. It’s been a hard day, you chair the meeting please,” and closed his eyes. He wasn’t asleep, however: at some point he looked up from the list of participating religious groups and asked, “Where are the Dutch Reformed Churches?” I said that they had been very difficult to persuade about the gun hand-in campaign. “Well, he said, ‘if I’m to be patron of this, you need to get them in…’”

 This man who asked me to write a speech he was to give to a church conference, and who, wherever I referenced the “role of the churches” in the liberation struggle, or in leading protests or caring for victims, struck out the world “churches” and inserted the words “faith communities,”  in order to be more inclusive of other faiths in the land he now governed…

This man who never tried to hide his feet of clay, lived comfortably in his skin, and never lost an opportunity to deprecate his own accomplishments, lightly deflecting praise to others…

What a very human being!

Peter Storey is W. Ruth and A. Morris Williams Distinguished Professor Emeritus of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School, former president of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa and past president of the South African Council of Churches. He first met Nelson Mandela 50 years ago in his jail cell, as a prison chaplain, and worked with him often in the ensuing years, including as head of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliatin Commission.  This article is excerpted from remarks Storey delivered at the first memorial for Mandela in South Africa after his death.