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.