A torrent of tributes have been written about Nelson Mandela.
There is little one can add except to say that his death has left the world a much poorer place. His most abiding quality was that he never claimed to be a saint; but his actions after spending twenty-seven years in jail in appalling conditions, at the hands of a white regime determined to see the back of him by whatever means, elevated him to a unique place in history.
It was a winter’s day in 1986 when South Africa’s beleaguered white government declared a nation-wide state of emergency. At that moment riots were sweeping the black townships, convincing millions of South Africans, and the world at large, that a surging race-war was impending and unlikely to be avoided.
But miraculously the predicted bloodbath never happened. This was due to the wisdom, affability and forgiveness of a regal man who went on to heal the wounds of decades of black repression and taught the majority of South Africans the benefits of cooperation.
His inspiration has, so far, turned South Africa into a democratic nation – which he described as a period passing from ‘skunk of the world’ to ‘rainbow nation’.
Even some white intellectuals of South African stock were not convinced of his sincerity to afford him any leeway in proving his good intentions. A prime example was Prince Charles’s guru, Sir Laurence van der Post, who I must admit I never liked. In an interview I did with him in the autumn of 1993, I asked, ‘You have surprised many people by being very critical of Nelson Mandela, saying that when he emerged from prison he was “more myth than man”, and still spouting “the moth-eaten clichés of the spirit”. Most people would regard that as harsh criticism of someone they see as essentially dignified, unsubdued by imprisonment…not unlike yourself in many ways.’
His answer: ‘Did you see what I wrote about Nelson Mandela?’
I said, ‘I heard, and I am quoting.’
‘Well’, he said, ‘you heard wrong. I said that Nelson Mandela, when he came out of prison, had become more of a myth in the minds of people than a man, which I think is true. When he emerged from captivity it was an immense opportunity for him to speak. I had been in prison myself, and I knew it was a terrible thing to do to a human being. But I think that prison is one of the finest schools for the making of the human spirit that can ever be. I myself did only a crash course, so to speak, but he went to university, having been in prison for twenty-seven years. You can imagine my disappointment when I heard him talk all those clichés, thanking the communists and so on. I had to ask myself: has he actually been in prison? And I thought of the great examples of people who have come out of prison the right way, people like Solzhenitsyn who showed from the words he used that he had learned lessons in that prison school. What I bitterly regret is that Nelson Mandela didn’t come out as Martin Luther King saying that he had a dream for Africa, instead of giving us a lot of moth-eaten political platitudes. I was bitterly disappointed. Nelson Mandela is a miserable figure who speaks with a double tongue. You should hear the Dalai Lama on the subject of Nelson Mandela, how after Tiananmen Square he cuddled up with the Chinese government when he was there. He’s a very brave man, but he’s a great disappointment to me personally. He had twenty-seven years to think about life, and yet he still belongs to a party which hasn’t renounced power and war.’
Sir Laurence van der Post would say that. I found him capable of mixing fact and fiction to suit his point of view. He was a man who was prone to embellish his exploits in order to produce the maximum impact.
To me, Mandela will always be remembered as the man who saved his nation – not by brutal means as his predecessors, but by spreading forgiveness, goodwill and a great measure of racial tolerance and understanding which few leaders before him had ever done. His memory, as a result, will never fade away for he had been undoubtedly a giant to be admired and revered throughout the ages.