December 5, 2013

Gracious and tough, Mandela was fun to cover

His very demeanor served as the rebuttal to all those who peddled fear and foretold disaster should blacks get the vote and take power in Pretoria.

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FILE - In this May 8, 1996 file photo, South African President Nelson Mandela, center, applauds along with his two deputy presidents, Thabo Mbeki, left, and F.W. de Klerk, after a new constitution was approved by the Constitutional Assembly in Cape Town, South Africa. South Africa's president Jacob Zuma says, Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, that Mandela has died. He was 95. (AP Photo/Argus, Leon Muller, File)

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FILE - Snowballs rest on the hands of a statue of former South African President Nelson Mandela in London's Parliament Square in this Feb. 1, 2009 file photo. On Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, Mandela died at the age of 95. (AP Photo/Sang Tan, File)

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He could be firm with his followers, upbraiding them like a stern uncle — saying they were embarrassing the cause when they tore down posters of opponents or heckled members of the National Party of F.W. de Klerk, his Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate and (to Mandela) little-loved partner in South Africa’s peaceful transition. “People will believe that we are unfit for government,” he would warn followers when they showed any signs of hooligan behavior.

He was loyal as well to the Third World and to the Non-Aligned Movement, the countries that had formed the anti-apartheid front. Even when he was firmly embraced by the United States government, he would not forsake his old revolutionary allies Yasser Arafat, Moammar Gadhafi or Robert Mugabe — those who had befriended his cause at a time when the world’s richer and more powerful countries were still supporting apartheid South Africa.

And he could be brutal with his political opponents. At the single televised debate with de Klerk before the election, Mandela was so scathing verbally, coming on relentlessly like the boxer he once was in his youth, that many viewers felt sorry for the last white leader of South Africa. And Mandela completely flummoxed him when he seized de Klerk’s hand for a unifying handshake at the end.

I met Mandela a few times at small group interviews during those years, including on the morning after voting in his historic election ended.

After his swearing-in for president on the steps of the rose-hued government building in Pretoria, where an honor guard of South African fighter jets roared overhead in formation trailing different colors to salute to the nation’s first democratically chosen leader, Mandela slipped easily into the role of president. He faced a constant round of hosting dignitaries and celebrities, chairing Cabinet meetings, and traveling, leaving many day-to-day affairs to his ministers and to his chosen political heir Thabo Mbeki.

In a meeting for a group of foreign journalists when he was then 77, he recounted all the affairs of state and problems of the country that were keeping him busy, but made clear nevertheless that he was still energetic and still relishing the burden of leading his nation and serving as an icon for Africa and for the cause of truth and reconciliation everywhere.

“At the end of day, I have often felt that I have spent my time very fruitfully,” he told us with his typical understatement and a slight twinkle in the eye.

Remembering now, and contemplating one man’s long and momentous journey into history, I can only agree.

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