…on February 12, 1990, we’d waited on the expansive lawns of the elegant house for Mandela to address his first formal press conference after his release from more than 27 years in jail.
It was that press conference — far more than the legendary fist-pumping image of him emerging from Victor Verster prison the day before — that set the tone for the magic of the Mandela years. While we all might wish it otherwise, for those of us on the ground Mandela’s first day of freedom was not the unmitigated success the world likes to remember.
Central Cape Town had descended into chaos as celebrating crowds waited for the African National Congress (ANC) leader to arrive at City Hall. Drunken looters smashed shop windows, groped women, mugged passersby and killed at least two people during the wait.
Mandela’s hesitant first speech on that day included standard ANC rhetoric about the need to nationalize South African mines. Foreign investors responded promptly, wiping the equivalent of about US$1 billion off the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.
Mandela recalibrated fast. By the time he strode across the Bishopscourt grass to speak to waiting reporters and diplomats he switched tone and pitch to deliver answers that were a model of informality and sharp analysis. There were endearing moments: initial confusion about the purpose of the furry microphones used by television journalists — his only previous television interview had been in 1961 — and his unaffected delight at meeting reporters whose bylines he recognized from smuggled newspapers in prison.
More significantly, he used the occasion to preach the reconciliation and forgiveness that set the moral tone of his presidency and beyond. “Whites are fellow South Africans,” he said. “We want them to feel safe and know we appreciate the contribution they have made to this country.”
The significance of this outreach can hardly be overstated. During the apartheid years, black and white South Africans may as well have lived in different countries. The country did not have a single unifying national symbol. The legal obscenities of apartheid — the denial of voting rights, the segregated suburbs, beaches and movie theaters–obscured the even more entrenched social silos. Whites and blacks sang different national anthems. They celebrated different holidays. Whites waved the orange, white and blue flag bedecked with colonial symbols. Blacks largely united under the green, black and gold colors of the ANC.
Mandela, successfully demonized as a terrorist by the white government throughout his years of imprisonment, managed to bridge that gap. Released into a country teetering on the brink of civil war, his charm, sensibility — and, perhaps most importantly, his willingness to forgive his former oppressors — proved such a unifying force that when South Africa went to the polls in 1994, he was so revered that whites and blacks alike proudly dangled his picture from their key rings and bought his portrait from street vendors.
Mandela’s storied decision to wear a Springbok rugby jersey to celebrate the team’s 1996 World Cup victory — mostly accurately portrayed in the movie Invictus – was just one example of his outreach.
In other conciliatory gestures, he visited the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the prime minister known as the architect of apartheid, publicly forgave the prosecutor who argued for his lifetime jail sentence and paid a courtesy call on his finger-wagging nemesis, former president P. W. Botha. The visits were as much symbolic as canny political strategy, given the continuing white dominance of South Africa’s economy and Mandela’s recognition that he needed white support to stabilize the country.
That legacy lingers. As crowds gathered around the Johannesburg home where he spent his final weeks, white and black alike sobbed openly at the prospect of losing him. His wife, Graça Machel, probably best captured the spirit of the moment when she told a press conference: “I think the best gift, which he has given this nation again, is the gift of unity.” Indeed.
The real measure of one’s greatness comes when that person achieves power. And by that standard, Mandela was one of the greatest of them all. May he rest in peace.