By Steve McDonald, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Steve McDonald is a senior advisor on the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The views expressed are his own.
As a young Foreign Service Officer assigned to the American Embassy in Pretoria, South Africa, in the late 1970s, I was assigned to cover “black political affairs,” which meant getting to know and interacting with the majority population and its leaders during the height of the racist Apartheid government’s rule.
While I met almost all of the key African leaders of the day, it was not possible to meet Nelson Mandela, although I did try. The African National Congress (ANC) was in exile in those years and Mandela had been in prison since 1964. However, I could begin to take the measure of the man, because Madiba, as he was fondly called then and now, was never far from anyone’s thoughts or prayers. Mandela was the “leader” in every black person’s mind.
I left South Africa in 1979, and it would be more than a decade before I would actually meet the man. In that time, Mandela’s legend would grow, and his leadership became more firmly entrenched, even while he was in prison. The South African Apartheid government, recognizing his central role as a leader, would come to realize that the only way to avoid a huge confrontation of epic proportions was to begin to negotiate with Mandela for a way out.
Throughout the 1980’s, I was in and out of South Africa constantly, on various work related trips, or visiting family, as I had married a South African. During most of that decade, South Africa was under a vicious state of emergency with thousands of people dying in violent townships, the tightening of the police state apparatus, growing ANC sabotage and no seeming way out but ultimate Armageddon. Mandela worked silently and diligently behind the scenes from his cell on Robben Island, and then in his more relaxed house arrest in Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland, to urge restraint and common sense, while making sure no one misunderstood the final goal: a South Africa in which all people had equal rights in a democratic state. From letters and secret messages to verbal prompts to visitors, Mandela remained the central guiding figure of the struggle.
In 1990, after years of painstaking and persistent behind-the-scenes negotiations with President P.W. Botha and then President F.W. De Klerk, Mandela walked out of prison a free man. He was to engage in a negotiation process with all parties, from left to right, work through the formulation of a new democratic constitution, and help bring the country to its first ever truly democratic elections in 1994.
Once president, he took on the critical and necessary task of reconciliation between white, black, colored and Indian in this deeply divided society. He formed a unity government, inviting De Klerk, who had lost the election, to stand beside him as one of the deputy presidents. He oversaw the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address past violations of human rights. He reconciled with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the leader of the most powerful opposition black party, who had also stood for and lost the election. Mandela also met with General Constance Viljoen, the head of the South African Defense Forces, who had formed a rightest party of his own and had enough arms in white militia hands to set back the transition to democracy. Viljoen became an important ally.
From 1991 to 1994, Mandela was the critical element in bringing about an agreement that allowed there to be a democratic South Africa, and then to hold that fragile state together in its first four years while its populations came to grips with this new entity and their new reality. Made up of over 10 distinct African ethnic groups, mixed race individuals called “coloreds,” Indians whose ancestors had come to work the sugar cane fields, and a mishmash of white ethnicities born of the colonial and settlement era, to include, at least, English, Afrikaner, Dutch, German and French, with a number of Scotsmen thrown in, this “new” South Africa was a volatile brew. Mandela held it all together. The first order of business in 1991 had to be a system of governance that was democratic and sacrosanct. When finished, the constitution and its bill of rights became a model for the whole world in its protection of the rights of all. In 1994, with the foundation laid, Mandela had to turn to reconciliation, and no other human being could have accomplished it.
How he did it is still considered a miracle by some. It started with his in-born sense of inclusiveness, of always understanding opposing views, “walking in the shoes of the other,” and taking the interests of all into account. That reads like a manual of conflict resolution training, but Mandela did not learn this from books, rather from “Ubuntu,” which in the Nguni languages of Southern Africa means a sense of humanity that binds us all. His commitment to that concept was the saving grace for a South Africa that could have erupted into irretrievable violence.
In practical terms, Mandela understood that all South Africans had to be in this together or the new “Rainbow Nation” would not succeed. This meant some compromise from past principles, often to the despair of his closest followers, but he showed no favoritism and equally called out his fellow ANC activists, as he did white opposition leaders for any breach of the unity he know South Africa had to have. His instinct and wisdom knew no bounds, and his greatest legacy will be a South Africa, still separated in opposing political camps, but where all South Africans are proud of their nationality and unity.
And, through it all, he never lost his human touch, which, after all, was the cornerstone of his philosophy of Ubuntu. Mandela was accessible, giving of his time freely for his work, international visitors, and the average person. He was a family man with a deep commitment to his children and grandchildren, most of whom he had not seen for years. He was a nightmare for security personnel as he greeted everyone, mingled on the street, in a soccer stadium, at the airport, anywhere and anyone. It was this attribute that not only endeared him to South Africa and the world, but made him the trusted and effective interlocutor who could bring South Africa out of the fire and into the world community as a full and free partner.
Mandela has become an icon to the whole world, but he would be the last person to ever describe himself that way. He knew he had an historic moment and an important role to play, but he always saw himself as a soldier among many in the struggle of freedom, equality, and democracy, and his constituency the people of his beloved country.