So much has been broadcast and written by every conceivable form of communication about Nelson Mandela to every free citizen — and to those imprisoned by birth — that millions must feel embraced by his outsized and forgiving spirit.
We know him to carry himself with the dignity of tribal royalty who showed his humanity by anger, even violence against symbols of dehumanizing apartheid; we know him to have been a prisoner who never surrendered his self-respect and who treated his captors with respect, eventually with friendship.
His leadership, his patience and endurance, his sense of humor and enjoyment of victory for the home team as exuberant as any other fan and the broad welcoming smile have been demonstrated by hours of television.
Is there anything left to be said about this great man? I do not have any picklock insight into hidden dimensions of the man but I do know something of his country, one close friend and one significant enemy not seen on TV.
In 1977, when I arrived for the first time in South Africa to do a series of talks for the only official civil rights organization, Mandela was still in Cell No. 5 on Robben Island and the country was boiling with unrest.
Soweto, the black township outside Johannesburg, had boiled over in 1976. Students protesting the inadequate Bantu education system were enraged by an order to teach classes in Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor.
Protest marches were organized and were met by police firing tear gas and live ammunition into the marchers. Up to as many as 200 students reportedly died. The official count of the government was 20.
Visiting then was like flying into my own past, Alabama of the segregated ’40s and ’50s, and the protest marches of the ’60s, only worse; even sheriff’s deputies in Deep South towns did not fire live rounds into the marchers.
The National Party government was screwing down the Apartheid rules ever tighter as the patience of the majority was growing thinner and thinner and the man most able to negotiate peace was silenced, visits, letters and phone calls strictly rationed. Mandela was even denied books and writing paper.
There was one significant competitor for power outside Mandela’s African National Party. He was Mangosthutu Gatsha Buthelezi, chief of the Zulu tribe in the region that included Durban, the Miami of South Africa.
The fact that I had been briefed by Vice President Walter Mondale before my trip made it possible to arrange a meeting with the chief of the Zulus, a tribe with a history as fierce warriors.
American interest in the chief stemmed from the political party he organized, Inkatha Freedom Party, which spoke in terms of equality.
We met for dinner in a Durban hotel. He was a short, fit, gracious man in a business suit and tie. Our conversation was not memorable until I asked, “What is there in the Zulu tradition that provides protection for minorities?”
“Oh,” he answered, “minorities are under the protection of the Chief.” (As long as you’re good little obedient minorities, I thought but did not say.)
My last talk was to a tough audience, the Afrikaner Chamber of Commerce in Johannesburg. I tried to appeal to their national pride in my conclusion: “I have a dream that, when you have settled differences among all your tribes, the delegate of South Africa will rise in the United Nations and the chamber will fall silent out of respect for a great economic, military and MORAL power.”
Most memorable of that long ago tour was meeting Mandela’s dear friend, Helen Suzman, a feisty, strong spear-point of a woman who for 13 years had been the only opposite member of parliament.
When I met her in Cape Town on the patio of the U.S. ambassador’s residence, a great oak of a man, the Nat Party justice minister, was coarsely belittling that tiny, five-foot woman. When she’d had enough, she turned sharply and kicked the minister in the shin.
She had already engaged in a hectoring campaign against the same justice minister who finally relented and allowed her to visit Mandela, which she did frequently, taking him books and writing paper.
It was she who introduced Nelson Mandela to the world and reconnected Madiba to his people, creating such a clamor inside and outside the country that he was eventually released to become the forgiving healer of a torn nation.
A tall black man and a tiny white woman were warriors together in the cause of human rights. The struggle was long but they knew why they fought. Both are now gone, at peace beneath the soil of their beloved country.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.