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Glimpsing the true greatness of Nelson Mandela

In 1996, a South African court formally ended the 33-year-old marriage of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. More than anything else he did, it was President Mandela’s behaviour during this time that left the most lasting impression on me. At no stage did he display anger, bitterness or vindictiveness, so common in marital break-ups. Dignified, sad and accepting, he was completely without rancour – the epitome of a mensch.

The contrast between Mandela and another world leader whose private life was made glaringly public could hardly have been more striking. A couple of years later, it was the turn of Bill Clinton to show what he was made of. That grubby little liaison with a White House intern had now hit the headlines and Clinton was being called on to answer for it. We all remember what happened – how the head of the world’s premier nation squirmed and lied, and as a result made himself an even greater object of contempt than he already was. How much of his reputation he might have salvaged had he acted like a man and frankly admitted his indiscretion!

Mandela’s 90th birthday attracted the anticipated flood of tributes from all over the world.

The SA Jewish Board of Deputies brought out a commemorative publication for the occasion, comprising both goodwill messages from most of the country’s Jewish organisations and the personal reminiscences of Jewish individuals who had been involved with Mandela over the years. In addition to the expected “big names” – Helen Suzman, Isie Maisels, Arthur Chaskalson, Albie Sachs, and Tony Leon, amongst others – these included past chairmen of the Board of Deputies, businessmen and various professionals who had been involved in Mandela’s affairs in some capacity or other.

In the course of editing the publication, I could not help but be moved – indeed, even awestruck – by the towering personality that emerged so consistently in the various memoirs. As one contributor observed, Nelson Mandela’s outstanding human traits emerged most clearly “in small stories about the man rather than in grand gestures, for it is in these moments that his true humanity shines through”.

The following is one such episode, one of many that could have been chosen. In the early 1960s, Mandela liaised closely with Benjamin Pogrund, then Africa Affairs editor for the Rand Daily Mail, over a planned national strike by black workers. The strike failed in the end, in no small part because the Rand Daily Mail, a highly respected paper in the black community, poured cold water on its prospects. Pogrund felt wretched about this, and when his phone rang and he heard Mandela’s voice, he immediately began stammering out an apology for what his newspaper had done. Mandela interrupted and said cheerily: “It’s alright Benji-boy; I know it wasn’t your fault”.

It was, for Pogrund, “an act of total and unforgettable generosity”. Anger, resentment, a sense of betrayal – a lesser man would probably have shown all these things. Mandela, in the midst of his own disappointed hopes, was able to be sensitive to another’s feelings and put him at ease. Of course, this was just a minor episode, one that would never find its way into an official history. But in its way, it is as enlightening as any of the “big picture” events that people usually remember.

There remains a strong idolatrous streak in the human race, a tendency to place certain individuals on pedestals and hero-worship them. One should always be wary of falling into that trap when assessing the relevance of historical figures (especially politicians!) since there is always a danger of remembering them as we would like them to have been, not as they really were.

I believe that Nelson Mandela is one of those very rare personalities whose greatness becomes more, not less apparent the more one examines him.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.


  1. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 27 August 2008

    Unfortunately he is human and Winnie was his Archilles heel. Who can blame him for the fact that he loved a Delilah. So did Samson.

  2. sucrose sucrose 27 August 2008

    I challenge you to write about ‘the true greatness of any one leader, a black leader.How about Thibos?Mandela is not the only ‘one good native’, you know.And the rest of us are not savages Mr Exotic.

  3. Lyndall Beddy Lyndall Beddy 28 August 2008

    As far as I am concerned my heros are the Tambos and the Sisulus, AND Albertina Sisulu is “the mother of the nation” in my book.

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