Nelson Mandela life story: The born statesman

From uniting South Africa to his involvement in the Lockerbie trial, Mandela was a political giant who never lost sight of the world he gave up so much for

Nelson Mandela's sense of human goodness and also of human frailty were at the core of a considered, rational and often misunderstood political wisdom. Generous when generosity was called for, firm - sometimes even brutally so - when he felt firmness was needed, he was an astute leader and masterly negotiator. He was a complex person, not in the sense that he was hard to understand, but in the sense that there were so many facets to him.

People sometimes had a view of him as a weak and sentimental old man who just loved the world. But this detracts from, and overlooks, his efforts in achieving genuine reconciliation, and the fact that he was as much concerned about transformation as he was about reconciliation. Madiba's reconciliation was soberly political, and dependable for that. He was adept at using political power for good. He had a sound grasp of the political impact of what sometimes seemed merely soppy warm-heartedness. On the other hand, there is a mistaken view that he alone nurtured this conciliatory spirit: Thabo Mbeki was no less committed to it.

&main=It was a broad process, but in the end Madiba did become the "father of the nation" and he was really the embodiment of the whole concept of reconciliation. It is easy, however, to dismiss this as soft politics. It wasn't. It had everything to do with the bedrock of the new society South Africans were feeling their way towards, and Madiba was entirely rational about this. And it wasn't as if he was afraid of speaking his mind or even of straining relations with those who were important to this project of reconciling South Africans from different backgrounds. In the early days of the government of national unity, he had sharp exchanges with, for instance, FW de Klerk, who was then his second deputy president. One clash in particular struck those present as being out of character, of being almost ill-considered, but it emerged later that he hadn't merely lost his cool. It was a considered response, and it formed part of making this remarkable government of national unity a workable mechanism. There is a credible argument that, given the historical processes at work in South Africa over the centuries, South Africans as a whole were more or less forced to live together and find common solutions - the embodiment of the government of national unity. In that sense, it was a natural product of our history. But the point is, we almost take it for granted today that the nation would cohere. The truth is, it couldn't just have happened on its own. The fact of a unified nation after Madiba's five years was really a major achievement. So were the material improvements in the lives of ordinary people - the taps and toilets and houses; the consolidation of democracy and constitutionalism through instruments such as the constitutional court and the public protector; and the fact that the departure of the New National Party from the multi-party government did not so much as put a strain on our young democracy. All these things underscore what was a remarkable transition. After only five years, nobody was vulnerable to arbitrary state action as they had been, routinely, under apartheid. Some often thought of this as a soft issue, but it wasn't. For those who had lived in the undemocratic setting preceding 1994, this was as hard an issue as you could find. And the one man who embodied the spirit of this achievement was Nelson Mandela.

A lot was made at the time, and has been made since, of Madiba's visit to Betsie Verwoerd at her home in the "white enclave" of Orania. Some felt this was going too far. But he understood the very real and important symbolic value of making this journey. It took political courage and insight to carry it off. In fact, he always spoke fondly of Mrs Verwoerd. He had the stature and integrity to reach across the divide to her world without cost to the struggle for justice and freedom.

There was a moment, those who were there describe, when she was trying to read something in bad light, and he stepped in and held the light for her. It was typical of the sort of simple human gesture Madiba was capable of making with grace and generosity.

It is striking that Mandela was quite upset about the change in name of the Verwoerd building, home to the ministerial suites, in the parliamentary complex in Cape Town. In an early cabinet meeting, an objection was raised to ministers having to work in a building named after Hendrik Verwoerd, architect of so-called "grand apartheid". There and then, they decided to rename the building 120 Plein Street. Mandela wasn't at this meeting, and when I took him the minutes, his blunt response was: "Why did they do that? If I had been there I would have stopped it." It bothered him that his ministers were "picking on" Verwoerd, and he pointed out that there was a Verwoerd in the ANC benches in parliament - Melanie Verwoerd. For him, it was both a matter of principle and of strategy. He considered the change unnecessarily antagonistic - a step that risked alienating people.

It was typical of his understanding of the wider political implications of decisions that might at first sight have seemed justifiable. He possessed an acute sense of fundamentals founded on his always generous understanding of humanity, and of the lives of ordinary people. His international stature was immense, especially in the sense that ordinary people responded to him in a remarkable way as if they understood that, ultimately, he stood for them. And this is what he brought to his dealings with international statesmen, not least in troubled situations where he made no bones about the need to uphold fundamental human values.

It sometimes made for contestation, for tough meetings. This was true of his meetings with Suharto in the Philippines, with the Burundi leaders, with Libyan President Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and even with the likes of US President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The Burundi peace initiative was characterised by very unconventional forms of diplomacy. He was very hard on the Burundi leaders to the point even of chastising them. It was a particularly interesting expression of his work to reconcile people.

He was not, in fact, keen to take on the Burundi initiative, but he was prevailed upon, and he did it.

Closer to home, he was always very conscious of Robert Mugabe's resentment of post-apartheid South Africa's rise to prominence, of him being eclipsed by Madiba himself. He always treated Mugabe with absolute correctness and deference, but Mugabe tended to be very petty. On one occasion, when there was a big gathering of southern African leaders in Gaborone, and Mugabe and Madiba, in their separate planes, were bound for the Botswana capital at about the same time, Mugabe was intent on landing after us. There was a ridiculous notion that the most senior leader attending any meeting should arrive last. As we circled over Gaborone, it turned out that while the Botswana authorities wanted us to land after Mugabe, Mugabe was desperate that the South African plane should land first. Madiba, who was very much for punctuality, eventually put his foot down. "Just tell the Botswanans," he ordered the pilot, "that we are landing now."

It is a measure of Madiba's statesmanlike abilities that he was able to be so extraordinarily effective in delicate interventions well outside the African sphere. This was strikingly so in his involvement in East Timor, and also, of course, in the groundwork that led to the trial of the Libyans for the bombing of the Pan Am 747 over Lockerbie in Scotland in 1988.

The Lockerbie case was a decisive achievement. On his way to Scotland for the Commonwealth conference in 1997, Madiba decided to deal directly with Gaddafi once and for all. He went to Egypt and then Libya, where he had long talks with Gaddafi. And, after raising the matter with UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and with Blair, he decided to work full time on it. The British resisted initially, but it was evident that they were prepared at least to consider it. It was clear that Cook, particularly, had an open mind. We believed, given our liberation background, that Gaddafi would trust us, and to further strengthen our position, we teamed up with Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, and started the process of talking. Kofi Annan was involved, too, because it was a United Nations sanctions issue. And thus began a remarkable process of shuttle diplomacy.

What is forgotten is that South Africa actually had to convince the Americans and the British - most people thought the challenge was to convince Gaddafi. He was sold on the idea of the trial being held in a third country, but the Americans and the British were not. In the end, we succeeded in achieving the compromise of having the trial held in the Netherlands under the jurisdiction of a Scottish court. It was one of Madiba's more spectacular diplomatic successes.

At home, he was imaginative and wise in his granting a prime ministerial role to Thabo Mbeki. Madiba was not, in fact, keen to stand as President at all. What kind of country, he used to say, would have a 72-year-old president? In the end, he was convinced by his old friend Walter Sisulu. But it was never a consideration at all that he would serve a second term and he set an excellent example in this. He assumed his role with vision and forthrightness, but had the foresight, also, to consider the state of play on his departure. This was contingent on events within the ANC, and for a long period he desisted from expressing himself on the matter, especially in view of the rivalry between Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa.

But once circumstances had been clarified, he expressed himself quite openly. I recall on one occasion reporting a matter to him, and he responding: "Well, I think you must speak to Thabo too because he is going to be the next president." It wasn't an involuntary, arbitrary handing-over of things to Thabo; it was contingent on the political process. Thus he preserved for himself the role of leader, while assigning a managerial role to Mbeki.

Most cabinet meetings were chaired by Mbeki, who was always the better manager, but he, Madiba, nevertheless asserted his presence, his authority, and he certainly exacted accountability for what went on in government. He would take issue with some ministers if things were not happening.

One of the biggest political headaches of his term as President was the simmering situation in KwaZulu-Natal and, as could be expected, he managed it with boldness. It had its precarious side. I remember his phoning me at home one Saturday. "Have you watched the news?" he asked me. I said, no, and he said: "You had better watch the news." He had announced that he would "cut off of the lights", cut off the funds to KwaZulu-Natal, if they didn't stop the violence. Now, constitutionally, he couldn't do that, and I think he realised this. After watching the bulletin, I called him back and said I thought we had a problem. I suggested that on Monday morning we have a press conference to put things right. He said: "OK, but I'm not just retracting." I suggested we use the opportunity to put his statement in context. Well, we did that. The very next day, he was speaking in parliament, and we prepared a very careful speech, which, essentially, reasserted the supremacy of the constitution. I was immensely relieved. But then came the moment when he took off his spectacles, and, rather like PW Botha wagging his finger, he said: "You know, I just want to say that no constitution is more important than the lives of people." Well, that very nearly undid all of our efforts. But his boldness conveyed an essential aspect: the will to find and preserve peace.

There was another occasion when some influential elements in the ANC in Natal could not believe the party had really lost to the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), and felt that there must have been some behind-the scenes manipulation to accommodate the IFP. They were on the verge of voting to call for a recount. Madiba flew down on the day of a key meeting. His timing was impeccable. We were on our way to Harare and, after being introduced, he said he did not have time to linger for any debate, but that he wanted especially to pay tribute to the comrades and congratulate them on this and that. He said he knew that the ANC was not an organisation in which the people simply took orders from the president, but that today he knew the wisdom of his leaders - and wanted to thank them for not taking a decision to contest the elections.

Well, that settled it. They couldn't debate it, because he had to leave to fly to Harare. The elections were not contested. I remarked to Madiba later: "That is not a very great display of democracy, is it?" and he replied: "It is a waste of time to be democratic with people who don't respect democracy."

I don't think that anybody could say he or she was untouched by Madiba. People who had never met him knew about, and had a sense of, what he stood for. He had moral authority, and people regarded him as goodness embodied. Part of this was being very frank, even rude, with people who needed reminding of human values. I saw this in Burundi. I commented once on his candour with some of these figures, and he responded: "Look, those people are killing one another, they are killing people. You can't beat around the bush with them and be nice to them and leave them in any doubt about what is going on." Because of the intrinsic goodness in him, and his great charm, and that moral stature, he could get away with doing things in bold or unconventional ways.

This was tellingly true of his encounters with the Royal Family in Britain. He even got the Queen to dance. Prince Charles hosted a concert at the Royal Albert Hall for South African artists, and, with the final song, Madiba stood up and did the Madiba shuffle up there in the Royal box. Prince Charles joined him, followed by Prince Philip and the Queen. I think it was historic for the Queen.

With the charm came an unnerving directness. Tony Blair experienced this after a public justification of allied action in the Balkans. Madiba told him to his face: "Tony, I am your friend.

There are many people in this world who are not your friend. I am your friend. And I must tell you, I don't buy that story of yours. So you must just think what the rest of the world thinks of that explanation." He was a political giant who never lost sight of the human world he gave up so much for.

Professor Jakes Gerwel is Chancellor of Rhodes University, Grahamstown

 

In The Independent on Saturday:


A special supplement celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela

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