I met Nelson Mandela twice. The first time he was no longer a prisoner and not yet the president of South Africa. His office was in a high-rise building in downtown Johannesburg, which the oil company Shell had used earlier as its headquarters but was now the home of the African National Congress (ANC). At that time, the ANC was still a freedom movement and not a political party, and it was a busy period as ANC’s leaders, developing negotiation strategies to write the country’s democratic constitution, were also getting acquainted with each other. Some had been in exile; some had taken up arms; some had been in jail; and some had stayed underground. Mandela was the unifying figure among these men and women, many of them avowedly leftist, some even revolutionary, and many, like Mandela, once believed in violence. (He was sentenced to Robben Island after the Rivonia Trial of the early 1960s, in which the ANC leadership was found guilty of planning and carrying out explosions, sabotage, and distributing weapons.)
Mandela shook my hand warmly and firmly; he considered India to be the ANC’s old friend and ally. India had led global efforts to isolate South Africa soon after apartheid was introduced in 1948, tabling resolutions at the United Nations and imposing sanctions. The old Indian passport carried an official stamp saying “Not valid for the Union of South Africa and the Colony of Rhodesia.” In 1974, the Indian tennis team forfeited its chance to win the Davis Cup, by not playing South Africa in the final. Mandela remembered; he was grateful.
He spoke of his admiration of Mohandas Gandhi, saying how much Gandhi had inspired him. But he also said: “But I cannot be like Gandhi. He lived in a different time, and he had different opponents. Our story is different.” Gandhi spent nearly 22 years in South Africa. As historian Ramachandra Guha points out, South Africans remind Indians that India sent Mr. Gandhi to South Africa; South Africa returned the Mahatma. (Gandhi had said: “It was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now.”) For some time, Mandela was in the same jail at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg where Gandhi was also jailed half a century earlier. Today it is a museum, next to the country’s Constitutional Court, and the museum’s wall carries a statement from Mandela: “The spirit of Gandhi may well be a key to human survival in the 21st century.”
The South African freedom struggle was different from India’s, and the paths Mandela and Gandhi took were also different. That did not prevent many from comparing him with Gandhi. But the two were different; both made political choices appropriate to their time and the context in which they lived.
Gandhi’s life and struggle were political, but securing political freedom was the means to another end, spiritual salvation and moral advancement of India. Mandela was guided by a strong ethical core, and he was deeply committed to political change. At India’s independence, Gandhi wanted the Congress Party to be dissolved, and its members to dedicate themselves to serve the poor. But the Congress had other ideas. Mandela would not have wanted to dissolve his organization; he wanted to bring about the transformation South Africa needed, but he also wanted to heal his beloved country.
This is not to suggest that Gandhi wasn’t political. He was shrewd and he devised strategies to seek the moral high ground against his opponents—and among the British he found a colonial power susceptible to such pressures, because Britain had a domestic constituency which found colonialism repugnant, contrary to its values.
Mandela’s point was that he didn’t have the luxury of fighting the British—he was dealing with the National Party, with its Afrikaans base, which believed in a fight to finish, seeking inspiration from the teachings of the Dutch Reformed Church which established a hierarchy of different races, which led to the establishment of apartheid. “One kaffir one bullet,” said the Boer (the Afrikaans word for farmer, which many Afrikaans-speaking South Africans were); “One settler one bullet,” replied Umkhonto weSizwe, the militant arm of the ANC.
And yet Mandela’s lasting gift was his power of forgiveness and lack of bitterness. He showed exceptional humanity and magnanimity when he left his bitterness behind, on the hard, white limestone rocks of Robben Island that he was forced to break for years, the harsh reflected glare of those rocks causing permanent damage to his eyes. And yet, he came out, his fist rose, smiling, and he wrote in his memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, that unless he left his bitterness and hatred behind, “I would still be in prison.”
By refusing to seek revenge, by accepting the white South African as his brother, by agreeing to build a nation with people who wanted to see him dead, Mandela rose to a stature that is almost unparalleled.
In Darrell Roodt’s 1992 film Sarafina, an inspiring teacher, Mary Masombuka (played by Whoopi Goldberg), asks her students to think of the unthinkable. Leleti Khumalo, playing the schoolgirl Sarafina, imagines that Nelson Mandela is free. They break into the song, “Freedom is coming tomorrow,” and Masombuka asks: “Mandela is released. Now what?”
It was a good question, and I got a glimpse of the answer the second time we met, in Singapore. I was a reporter for a regional magazine called Asia Inc. then, and the biggest story at that time was the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese democracy activist whose party had won elections in 1990, but which the junta, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council, had annulled. Aung San Suu Kyi was the democracy icon: already a Nobel Laureate and the generals wanted to push her off the international agenda, so that they could join the regional grouping, Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean), a prospect which the grouping welcomed. International pressure on Myanmar and Asean was essential.
Western governments insisted on Aung San Suu Kyi’s—and other political prisoners’—freedom and recognition of the results of the last elections. Asean, hardly a paragon of democracies, called its approach ‘constructive engagement’, an ironic nod to the West, which had called its policy towards apartheid-era South Africa in the early 1980s just that. (The term is associated with Chester Crocker, a Reagan-era US diplomat, who advocated a less confrontational approach towards South Africa to influence political change there, in an article in Foreign Affairs, and who later represented the Reagan administration as an envoy for Africa).
Who better than Mandela to tell Asean that constructive engagement wasn’t enough? So at his press conference I asked him if he would support calls for Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom. And Mandela said: “She is like my sister and I wish her well. But the matter is for Myanmar and Asean to decide. South Africa cannot interfere in the internal affairs of Myanmar.”
I was surprised; I asked a follow-up question: “But Mr. President, the world responded to your, and ANC’s call, and supported sanctions on South Africa. South African products were also boycotted. Wouldn’t you want the same for Myanmar?”
Mandela paused—it seemed clear that he wasn’t happy with the scripted answer he would have had to give, so he looked up, stared back and said: “That was prisoner Mandela. But this is President Mandela. And President Mandela is a prisoner of the Office of the President.”
Those two encounters with Mandela reveal the kind of compromises leaders must make when they become part of a political process. This is a lesson Aung San Suu Kyi is now learning, as she prepares to make the transition, from being a human rights crusader to a politician.
Calling Mandela the Gandhi of our times does no favour to either. Gandhi probably anticipated the compromises he would have to make, which is why he shunned political office. Mandela estimated, correctly, that following the Gandhian path of non-violent resistance against the apartheid regime was going to be futile, since the apartheid regime did not play by any rules, except those it kept creating to deepen the divide between people.
If post-apartheid South Africa needed a moral guardian who would be the nation’s conscience keeper, and if Mandela himself could not play such a role all the time, there was another Nobel Laureate, the Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu, to fill the void. In that South Africa was truly lucky, to have at its helm leaders of such integrity and character, when they were most needed.
In the years that followed, Mandela’s leadership would come under scrutiny. But wisely he ruled the country for only one term, letting democratic processes follow, setting an example too late for Africa, where many leaders of national independence movements never left office, unless they died in office or were forced to leave. He led a dignified retirement, his lasting legacy being the lack of violent upsurge that accompanied the end of apartheid when the country held its first democratic elections. There were no pogroms or reprisals; instead, as Antjie Krog writes in Country of My Skull, South Africans learned to listen to each other at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the perpetrators expressing remorse and the victims forgiving their torturers.
Maybe it was not perfect, but the alternative would have been disastrous. And Mandela had the foresight to see what violence could do, and turned his back, beginning his long walk to freedom. If nobody had listened to his call, he would have walked alone, and others would have followed, and they did.