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Nelson Mandela life story: An exceptional leader, an exceptional man

Mandela could both impress a man like Henry Kissinger and invite a butler to his inauguration

Few men tower, in modern history, with the moral certitude or the political wisdom, the forgiving patience or the lordly humility, of Nelson Mandela. Often, at their deaths, much-talked-about figures, politicians, even magnates, are spoken of by adoring mourners with a certain evangelical fervour and, for most of them, it is an overstatement that is ill-fitting.

There are a few exceptions, and one of them is Nelson Mandela. He was, you could say, sent by God.

The tragic history of societies that have contorted themselves through massive change reveals a pattern of blood-letting in civil war that is despairingly familiar. In modern times, the experiences of Vietnam, China, Spain, France, the United States, Ireland, these and more, illustrate the intractability of comprehensive political overhaul.

And in societies that, through wrenching change, produce a sanguinary conclusion, the scars are carried for at least 100 years.

Then we pause to consider the new South Africa of Nelson Mandela.

I was first urged to acquaint myself with Madiba by none other than the newly elected President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. There is something of an irony in Mugabe's recommendation, since the Zimbabwean leader, whom I regarded then as a strong and competent figure, was ultimately eclipsed in the southern African cosmos by the sheer magnitude of what Mandela achieved in neighbouring South Africa.

At the time, of course, in the early 1980s, the white nationalists' most famous prisoner was not available for my or any other outsider's acquaintance. But, come the 1990s, a chance to meet Mandela arose, and I took it.

It was in 1993 that I learnt Madiba was to visit America and I decided to approach him with an invitation to deliver the second HJ Heinz Fellowship Lecture at Pittsburgh University. He accepted.

&main=It was a salutary experience, and by no means for me alone. Among the guests was Henry Kissinger, who had delivered the first fellowship lecture a year earlier, a considerable personality wryly described as the only Secretary of State under whom three American Presidents have served.

Kissinger is famously unimpressionable yet, confronted by Nelson Mandela, he was hugely impressed, as everyone was, by the courage of the man, and the sheer charisma he brought to bear on us all. In so far as you can overawe Henry Kissinger, it was the only time I ever saw him slightly overawed. He actually genuflected to the ANC leader.

Nelson Mandela, it seems to me, has some, but not many, parallels in history. Gandhi comes immediately to mind, and his pacific victory over the British; Churchill in his best moments, standing alone in wartime; George Washington, possibly, and Abraham Lincoln. These are the sort of towering figures who managed to oversee not just a change of government from the left to the right, but a complete change in the temper of a nation orchestrated by one man.

In Nelson Mandela's case, there is the distinct sense of his having been a one-off. The qualities are somewhat elusive: his education as a lawyer was no doubt an element, as was his aristocratic birth, the princely qualities inculcated in the clan court. There was his immense self-discipline, and his period in prison having been a perhaps necessary catharsis.

It is hard to say prison is necessary for any individual, but it is good for the rest of us to see that a man can go through that isolation and humiliation and emerge as he did.

There was an occasion in 1994 when our family joined him for dinner at his presidential compound. It was just our group, no aides, nobody but the wine steward. And this man, the steward, turned out to have been Mandela's former prison warder. The meaning of his life had become clear: it was to look after Madiba.

It struck me forcibly that that's an unusual event to see in one's life, to see in a man a filial attraction and affection for another he had formerly been the captor of.

Having first visited South Africa as an 18-year-old member of the Lions rugby team in 1955 – when we were quite unconscious of the caravan of apartheid lumbering on to the stage – and again, with the Barbarians in 1958 and the Irish team, in 1961, I have a long affection for the country.

By the mid-1970s, when I returned on a business visit as president of the Heinz company, my affection remained, but it was not uncomplicated by amounting awareness of the immense moral and political challenge South Africans were perilously deferring.

It seemed, as the final, costly decades of apartheid wore on, that a peaceful transition was implausible and that the likelihood of the country, of its history, delivering a leader strong enough and forgiving enough to subdue the fears and the anger of centuries was remote, to say the least.

It can only be considered remarkable that against this history, and the most unlikely circumstances of a country with such profound racial, linguistic, ethnic and political divisions that a figure arose by some magical alchemy to codify by forgiveness a dispensation in southern Africa that is the root cause of all the prosperity that is now accruing to this country.

In a continent where there is too often a mere doffing of the hat to democracy and which is liable at any moment to be subsumed in anarchy, South Africa emerges from its bitter history with a much higher level of general happiness than almost any other country in the world.

You encounter among South Africans a certain surprised pride. Even if they are against the changes, they are rather proud to be South Africans, and that all goes back to the person of Nelson Mandela.

When Independent News %26 Media invested in this country in 1993, we were taking a big risk and few followed us. People wished South Africa well, but it became one of those moral issues that the world could, from a distance, without discomfort, be satisfied was settled.

South Africa passed from being a moral issue to being a society in which you had to ask, how do you adjust? And I think in that period, the next six years, Mandela gave enormous confidence to the world that a miracle was happening here without in any way arrogantly claiming that he was the miracle. But he was.

After he had delivered the lecture in Pittsburgh in 1993, I persuaded him that he needed a rest, and that he should spend some time at our home in the Bahamas. It was Christmas, and we were going back to Ireland, so he could have the run of the place.

There was just the butler, John, and the staff. He agreed. We joined him there for the last two days of his stay.

The sequel to his Caribbean vacation came some months later, in May 1994, when he was inaugurated as the first democratically elected President of South Africa. We were following this extraordinary event on television at home, intrigued and impressed by the gathering assembly of dignitaries who were there to witness the ceremony first-hand. Then we saw the American delegation: first was Hillary Rodham Clinton, second was Al Gore... and third was John, the butler.

The appreciably nonplussed CBS commentator was saying: "And the third person is... well, he must be one of our African ambassadors." Good heavens, John!, we all thought.

But if there was astonished delight to be expressed, it was due entirely to the unassuming affection of the great man of the moment, Madiba himself.

Who else, at so distracting a juncture, would have contemplated such a gesture, an ordinary if not a casual "Do come to my inauguration, John"? He'd have meant it, and it happened.

We remember Nelson Mandela as an exceptional man.

Sir Anthony O'Reilly is president emeritus and the former chief executive of Independent News & Media