As was inevitable, Nelson Mandela has died, aged 95.
I was fortunate enough to briefly meet him when he visited New Zealand in the 1990s. It was the typical two second greet and meet, but he had almost an aura about him that I have not encountered before or since. Former Governor-General Cath Tizard summed it up well:
He put his arm around my shoulders as we walked back to the terminal – and thereafter called me Cathy. What a lovely man he was. He quite enchanted everyone he met with his natural manner and simple charm. I was more in awe of him than of any of the queens, kings and presidents I had ever met.
Mandela had a special role in the world, for three reasons, I would say. One was his incredible personal humility and charm. The other two were his role as the leader of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the other was his role as the first democratically elected President of South Africa.
His role in the anti-apartheid struggle was controversial. While the struggle was noble, the tactics changed from civil disobedience to armed struggle. Reasonable people can disagree on whether it is legitimate to resort to violence, if you are not allowed to vote on the basis of your race, and there is no prospect of change. For my 2c, I don’t think resorting to violence was the right decision, but I may have thought differently if I was a black in South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s.
He spent 27 years in prison. Upon his release he was elected President of South Africa in their first democratic elections. And his remarkable legacy is that he preached peace and reconciliation, not revenge. Let me tell you that if my political enemies kept me in jail for 27 years, then the last thing on my mind coming out would be peace and reconciliation. I would have a very long list of names I wanted utu on.
Of course post-apartheid South Africa is far from ideal. It has many challenges, partly because so much of its population were kept out of decent education and jobs for generations. But if any other person bar Mandela had become their first President, I think it would be far far worse. He was elected at the age of 75, and in an act of unification made F W De Klerk his Deputy President.
Acts that greatly unified the country included reaching out to the widow of apartheid founder Hendrik Verwoerd with forgiveness and reconciliation, and also urging black South Africans to get behind the previously despised Springboks.
Mandela is not a saint, but he was a symbol, and he played the major role in eventually peacefully ending apartheid, that made the world a better place.