Nelson Mandela, 1918–2013: Remembering an Icon of Freedom

TIME's former managing editor writes about the man he knew — a prisoner turned peacemaker who carried South Africa out of apartheid and changed the world

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Nelson Mandela was always uncomfortable talking about his own death. But not because he was afraid or in doubt. He was uncomfortable because he understood that people wanted him to offer homilies about death and he had none to give. He was an utterly unsentimental man. I once asked him about his mortality while we were out walking one morning in the Transkei, the remote area of South Africa where he was born. He looked around at the green and tranquil landscape and said something about how he would be joining his “ancestors.” “Men come and men go,” he later said. “I have come and I will go when my time comes.” And he seemed satisfied by that. I never once heard him mention God or heaven or any kind of afterlife. Nelson Mandela believed in justice in this lifetime.

It was January 1993, and I was working with him on his autobiography. We had set out that morning from the home near Qunu, the village of his father, that Mandela had built after he was let out of prison. He had once said to me that every man should have a house in sight of where he was born. Much of Mandela’s belief system came from his youth in the Xhosa tribe and being raised by a local Thembu King after his own father died. As a boy, he lived in a rondavel — a grass hut — with a dirt floor. He learned to be a shepherd. He fetched water from the spring. He excelled at stick fighting with the other boys. He sat at the feet of old men who told him stories of the brave African princes who ruled South Africa before the coming of the white man. The first time he shook the hand of a white man was when he went off to boarding school. Eventually, little Rolihlahla Mandela would become Nelson Mandela and get a proper Methodist education, but for all his worldliness and his legal training, much of his wisdom and common sense — and joy — came from what he had learned as a young boy in the Transkei.

Mandela might have been a more sentimental man if so much had not been taken away from him. His freedom. His ability to choose the path of his life. His eldest son. Two great-grandchildren. Nothing in his life was permanent except the oppression he and his people were under. And everything he might have had he sacrificed to achieve the freedom of his people. But all the crude jailers, tiny cells and bumptious white apartheid leaders could not take away his pride, his dignity and his sense of justice. Even when he had to strip and be hosed down when he first entered Robben Island, he stood straight and did not complain. He refused to be intimidated in any circumstance. I remember interviewing Eddie Daniels, a 5-ft. 3-in. mixed-race freedom fighter who was in cell block B with Mandela on the island; Eddie recalled how anytime he felt demoralized, he would just have to see the 6-ft. 2-in. Mandela walking tall through the courtyard and he would feel revived. Eddie wept as he told me how when he fell ill, Mandela — “Nelson Mandela, my leader!” — came into his cell and crouched down to wash out his pail of vomit and blood and excrement.

I always thought that in a free and nonracial South Africa, Mandela would have been a small-town lawyer, content to be a local grandee. This great, historic revolutionary was in many ways a natural conservative. He did not believe in change for change’s sake. But one thing turned him into a revolutionary, and that was the pernicious system of racial oppression he experienced as a young man in Johannesburg. When people spat on him in buses, when shopkeepers turned him away, when whites treated him as if he could not read or write, that changed him irrevocably. For deep in his bones was a basic sense of fairness: he simply could not abide injustice. If he, Nelson Mandela, the son of a chief, tall, handsome and educated, could be treated as subhuman, then what about the millions who had nothing like his advantages? “That is not right,” he would sometimes say to me about something as mundane as a plane flight’s being canceled or as large as a world leader’s policies, but that simple phrase — that is not right — underlay everything he did, everything he sacrificed for and everything he accomplished.

I saw him a handful of times over the past few years. He was much diminished. The extraordinary memory that could recall a particular dish at a dinner 60 years before was now such that he often did not recognize people he had known almost that long. But his pride and his regal bearing never left him. When he “retired from his retirement” (as he put it in 2004), I thought it was simply because he couldn’t bear not remembering familiar things and he could not bear people seeing him in a way that did not live up to their expectations. He wanted people to see Nelson Mandela, and he was no longer the Nelson Mandela they wanted to see.

In many ways, the image of Nelson Mandela has become a kind of fairy tale: he is the last noble man, a figure of heroic achievement. Indeed, his life has followed the narrative of the archetypal hero, of great suffering followed by redemption. But as he said to me and to many others over the years, “I am not a saint.” And he wasn’t. As a young revolutionary, he was fiery and rowdy. He originally wanted to exclude Indians and communists from the freedom struggle. He was the founder of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the African National Congress, and was considered South Africa’s No 1. terrorist in the 1950s. He admired Gandhi, who started his own freedom struggle in South Africa in the 1890s, but as he explained to me, he regarded nonviolence as a tactic, not a principle. If it was the most successful means to the freedom of his people, he would embrace it. If it was not, he would abandon it. And he did. But like Gandhi, like Lincoln, like Churchill, he was doggedly, obstinately right about one overarching thing, and he never lost sight of that.

Prison was the crucible that formed the Mandela we know. The man who went into prison in 1962 was hotheaded and easily stung. The man who walked out into the sunshine of the mall in Cape Town 27 years later was measured, even serene. It was a hard-won moderation. In prison, he learned to control his anger. He had no choice. And he came to understand that if he was ever to achieve that free and nonracial South Africa of his dreams, he would have to come to terms with his oppressors. He would have to forgive them. After I asked him many times during our weeks and months of conversation what was different about the man who came out of prison compared with the man who went in, he finally sighed and then said simply, “I came out mature.”

His greatest achievement is surely the creation of a democratic, nonracial South Africa and preventing that beautiful country from falling into a terrible, bloody civil war. Several years after I finished working with him on Long Walk to Freedom, he told me that he wanted to write another book, about how close South Africa had been to a race war. I was with him when he got the news that black South African leader Chris Hani was assassinated, probably the closest the country came to going to war. He was preternaturally calm, and after making plans to go to Johannesburg to speak to the nation, he methodically finished eating his breakfast. To prevent that civil war, he had to use all the skills in his head and his heart: he had to demonstrate rocklike strength to the Afrikaner leaders with whom he was negotiating but also show that he was not out for revenge. And he had to show his people that he was not compromising with the enemy. This was an incredibly delicate line to walk — and from the outside, he seemed to do it with grace. But it took its toll.

And because he was not a saint, he had his share of bitterness. He famously said, “The struggle is my life,” but his life was also a struggle. This man who loved children spent 27 years without holding a baby. Before he went to prison, he lived underground and was unable to be the father and the husband he wanted to be. I remember his telling me that when he was being pursued by thousands of police, he secretly went to tuck his son into bed. His son asked why he couldn’t be with him every night, and Mandela told him that millions of other South African children needed him too. So many people have said to me over the years, It’s amazing that he was not bitter. I’ve always smiled at that. With enormous self-control, he learned to hide his bitterness.

And then, after he forged this new South Africa, won the first democratic election in the country’s history and began to redress the wrongs done to his people, he walked away from it. He became the rarest thing in African history, a one-term President who chose not to run for office again. Like George Washington, he understood that every step he made would be a template for others to follow. He could have been President for life, but he knew that for democracy to rule, he could not. Two democratic elections have followed his presidency, and if the men who have succeeded him have not been his equal, well, that too is democracy. He was a large man in every way. His legacy is that he expanded human freedom. He was tolerant of everything but intolerance. He deserves to rest in peace.

442 comments
paulgeorges
paulgeorges

Aug. 17, 2012 at 7:40 a.m. EST

South African police opened fire on a crowd of striking miners on Thursday, killing 34 people and leaving a field strewn with bodies in a massacre that instantly revived memories of the brutality of apartheid.



Read more: South Africa's Police Open Fire on Striking Miners | TIME.com http://world.time.com/2012/08/16/south-africas-police-open-fire-on-striking-miners-the-video/#ixzz2npaXkrNZ  Is that the legacy of a democratric governement ,does miners familly grieve now for Mandela legacy or for their own killed by a so called democratic government? What is liberty without any money to live decently ,what is democracy in a corrupt country where the only way out is to rob  to eat ?

PrinciplesAbovePersonalities
PrinciplesAbovePersonalities

Richard Stengel, you succeeded in dishonoring a great man's legacy, "learned to hide his bitterness."  I doubt the people closest to Madiba would agree with you. Shame on you sir. Your cowardice is apparent in the tone of this article, looking to appeal to detractors and admirers, alike.

jmlynick
jmlynick

TIME MAGAZINE'S PERSON OF THE YEAR 2013

amall22
amall22

Nelson Mandela had such a wonderful soul. May he be rewarded immensely in the Afterlife.

outspoken
outspoken

Please  stop this   hypocracy.   West   did  inhumane   treatment  to    him and  now  doing   cacophony.  People did  not

forget  the   Ptrice  Lumbaba of congo.

RamondeJsPolanko
RamondeJsPolanko

SANTIAGO,DR--Profound sadness after learning of Nelson Mandela passing—the entire world moved by the news   human dignity honored. 

Generations to come will remember the man known by his suffering fighting [apartheid] racism from black and whites forever standing upright his voice heard upon the sea of struggle.

Barbara Copi
Barbara Copi

I really enjoyed reading this article ! I can't think of words to aptly describe what a wonderful human being

manlyman
manlyman

Wow! First jfk and now this guy! What's the world coming to?

jalangaya
jalangaya

Remembering a terrorist who blew up buildings. Tim McVeigh?  No, Nelson Mandela.

ixe586
ixe586

We should be ashamed of ourselves because we let Mandela languish in prison for years and did nothing about it. The ANC was removed from the list of terrorist organizations only in 2008, and Mandela himself was classified as a terrorist by several US administrations (including Reagen). A cynical policy of "voluntary sanctions" against the Pretorian regime guaranteed that no Western nation did anything to force the apartheid regime to give up its rule. Business with the apartheid regime went on as usual. It was the poor countries who consistently forced the issue at every opportunity, until embarrassment and shame forced the rest of the world to take note. Apartheid could have ended many years before 1994, but it did not. 


Our actions with respect to apartheid in South Africa show us in very poor light. At this point, pretending to be the great champions of freedom in South Africa and singing praises about Mandela are simply hypocritical. The passage of time does not restore our soiled and deflated morality. As with our stand on the Bangladesh war, we lost an opportunity to do the right thing. At least let us be honest about our historical stand on this great man and the struggles of his people. Let us admit to ourselves that we failed Mandela and the people of South Africa when they needed us, and we delayed the dismantling of apartheid by many years.

lbjack
lbjack

Why is everyone going after Mandela?  He was just a cardboard hero the media, with Time in the forefront, contrived to pander, along with politicians, to America's blacks in a period of black domestic violence.  It was a cynical move to move the focus from America (and for the Brits, themselves) to the bogeyman South Africa.


For its hagiography, TIme resorts to the same lies it used to construct the Mandela myth.  So many LIES, about Mandela and the South Africa built by the Afrikaners, whose only fault was that they were white.


Mandela chose not to run because, as Time piously and falsely claims, Mandela didn't want to become a cult of personality but because he was totally incapable of governing. 


What is the legacy of Mandela?  A South Africa ruled by a regime just as racist and FAR MORE CORRUPT than the Afrikaners  -- who, called to answer for their incompetence and corruption ALWAYS blame apartheid -- it's their race card. Just as the rest of Africa, which is as thoroughly racist, tribalist, murderous, corrupt as the legacies of those other black nationalist Mandelas -- like Mobutu and Mugabe and Kenyatta.  Whose race card is called Western Colonialism.


But hey, Time sets the fashion, and they've ordained that being a Mandela groupie is a fashionable way of showing off your superior sensibilities.  What a loathsome outfit Time is, and what a fatuous audience these hucksters pander to!



Onepatriot
Onepatriot

A man with a vision for  his country and who wasn't going to be held back.  His life is truly inspirational and confounding when you wonder how he could suffer so many years in prison and put bitterness aside to do what was necessary to heal his country so the people could get rid of the oppression.  A true leader, and I feel sympathy with the people of South Africa who mourn his passing.  The world will remember his work and example.

Olga Rbl
Olga Rbl

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”

steveh46a
steveh46a

Geez, the right wing, frothy mouthed racists have come out from under their rocks. Mandela wasn't a communist but they're too blinded to see it.

dajadags
dajadags

mandela was a communist and a terrorist and should never have survived prison..

i cannot turn the station fast enough if they have mandela coverage.,

PaulFrantizek
PaulFrantizek

These hagiographies of Mandela are getting to be too much.  The man was a Communist, a terrorist and the leader of a 'national liberation' movement which killed more Black Africans than the security forces he was profession to fight.


That is hardly the stuff of an 'Icon of Freedom' or an 'Indispensable Life'.

Jose George
Jose George

He was not just a freedom fighter for a South African nation. He was a fighter for humanity from the worst evils mankind has seen: Slavery and apartheid, yet the most peaceful and forgiving - A lesson learnt from Jesus and Mahatma Gandhi.

RenateJakupca
RenateJakupca

Today, an eloquent voice has been silenced, a beautiful mind stilled, and a bountiful heart stopped. The epic soul of Nelson Mandela is now at rest.
It is routine to suggest that the legacy of a man or woman will outlive that person, but in this case, the world will never be the same now that Nelson Mandela has occupied it. The example of his leadership – from prison to the presidency – from a land riven by fear to a people reconciled through truth and justice – will stand for all time.

Fifteen years ago, in an address to the United Nations, Mandela wrote his own epitaph: “As I sit in Qunu and grow as ancient as its hills, I will entertain the hope that there has emerged a cadre of leaders in my own country and region, on my continent and in the world, that will not allow any to be denied freedom as we were; that will not allow any to be turned into refugees as we were; that will not allow any to be condemned to go hungry as we were; and that will not allow any to be stripped of their dignity as we were.”

I will remember Nelson Mandela was a man of profound dignity. 

In 2001 Ione Biggs and Renate Jakupca, together as Co-Directors of the 'US Network for the United Nations World Conference Against Racism' a project of the International center for Environmental Arts (ICEA) made their mark on contemporary history in Durban, South Africa by answering the United Nations’ call to "forge a real sense of vision and common purpose in the struggle for racial harmony and tolerance." Their courage and vision were publicly recognized when Ione and Renate received from Nelson Mandela his International Gold Medal Leadership Award in Human Rights. Now as we mourn his passing and celebrate his life, we must also find inspiration in his memory – striving daily to promote peace, freedom, and dignity for others.His lessons will live on, and his life's work will continue to inspire us all. Madiba~ Thank you for all you have given. You will not be forgotten. Peace Friend.[Note: Renate was also nominated by TIME Magazine in their 2000 Millennium Issue as one of their "Hero's of the Planet"

Monica Godo
Monica Godo

I agree completely, Missi. If you think that TIME's Person of the Year must be global, then everyone knows about Nelson Mandela.

Jeffery Branham
Jeffery Branham

They are the Peacemakers, the children of God...Rest in Everlasting Peace, in his glory....help us from the other side and realize how many lives you have changed for the better...you are so loved and will be missed beyond words...there is no one like you sir...Love Jeffery

jmlynick
jmlynick

Kinda what we do every July 4th - remember terrorists who blew up buildings and ships and Mother England's soldiers - only to found and form a great country.

PaulFrantizek
PaulFrantizek

The real lesson of Nelson Mandela is the danger of imprisoning terrorists and thus allowing them to become celebrity political prisoners.  Better to execute them and take the lumps up front, ala Che Guevara.

PaulFrantizek
PaulFrantizek

Mandela was an ideologically convinced Marxist-Leninist, not simply an ally of convenience.

And arguing that the ANC wanted 'equality for Blacks' is also wrong. They fought an extended war with the Zulus and other Blacks who wanted no part of their Communism.

Mandela also praised the Communist rule of Colonel Mengistu in Ethiopia, possibly the greatest mass murderer of Black Africans in history.

JohnLJordan
JohnLJordan

Mandela was not a communist? I invite you to have a look at the second picture in the following link. The man in the center of the picture looks a LOT like Barack Obama but I'm willing to stipulate that it is, in fact, the communist, Nelson Mandela. Would you so stipulate or is the picture another attempt at right-wing slander of a "people's hero" a la the murderer, Che Guevera? Do have a look: http://johngaltfla.com/wordpress/2013/12/05/another-communist-terrorist-leader-dies-nelson-mandela-a-m-f/

PaulFrantizek
PaulFrantizek

It's to the everlasting shame of our establishment media that they're utterly incapable of telling the truth about such a distasteful figure in history.


But I guess in a culture where every fifth college kid owns a Che T-Shirt, it's to be expected.

tommyudo
tommyudo

@doriangrey_grey


The French resistance fighters and those of other European countries during WWII were also considered 'terrorists" by your brown shirted breathren. I guess it all depends on what side you are on whether you are  a "terrorist" or a "freedom fighter."

You've shown your colors in being all gung ho for apartheid.

tommyudo
tommyudo

@PaulFrantizek


You are nothing but a ventiloquist's dummy for Bill O'Reilly. No one's listening, Paulie. The Brits in the 1770s viewed Washington as a terrorist, and i wonder how the citizens of Georgia and SC in early 1865 viewed that "terrorist" General Sherman. Slobs like you make the rest of us ill.

PaulFrantizek
PaulFrantizek

"Today an eloquent voice has been silenced, a beautiful mind stilled, and a bountiful heart stopped. The epic soul of Nelson Mandela is now at rest."

I think if you tried harder you could have been a bit more cloying and saccharine in your fawning.  


But still, 9/10.

JohnLJordan
JohnLJordan

Franklin D Roosevelt thought that his friend, Josef Stalin, was a man of "profound dignity."

tommyudo
tommyudo

@CrowdsGather


You prevaricating insignificant  little brown stains make me ill.

Of course he wasn't a saint, but then  those saints weren't saints either. Mandela was a man, just better than almost all other men. In human history there have been very few people of his moral stature. Remember, except for those like yourself, most of us are imperfect creatures. It sort of comes with the territory of being human

jmlynick
jmlynick

YEAH! Now you are talkin. They should have captured and killed that terrorist George Washington. While we are at it maybe we should capture and kill absolutely everyone we disagree with - before they have the chance to become stinking terrorists!

For those who haven't figured it out - its sarcasm!

JRS
JRS

@JohnLJordan that picture means nothing.  the SA Communist Party was unbanned at the same time as the ANC and they shared many platforms.  So if I show you a picture of Mandela standing in front of a Union Jack, are you going to assume he was British too?

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@tommyudo @PaulFrantizek No they did not. Besides all combatants view their opponents as terrorists. War is hell. So he burned and pillaged his way through the south. Calling somebody a slob who you do not know personally is only for third world country people. You know what I mean 

PaulFrantizek
PaulFrantizek

Mandela was no better than Castro or Arafat.  Comparing him to George Washington is either ignorant or deliberately slanderous towards a genuinely heroic figure.  George Washington didn't torture his fellow Americans in large numbers like Mandela's ANC did (read about necklacing).  Even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission acknowledged that more Blacks were killed by the ANC than by RSA security forces.


Sad thing is that a truly great African leader, Jonas Savimbi, died a few years ago, practically unnoticed.  Of course, Savimbi was an anti-Communist who resisted Cuban occupation of his nation as fiercely as he resisted Portuguese colonialism, an unforgivable lapse in the eyes of the opinion-making establishment.


Mandela is unworthy of the fawning attention he's receiving.  He's little better than his contemporaries, Mugabe and Mengistu.

JohnLJordan
JohnLJordan

Mandela was not a communist? I invite you to have a look at the second picture in the following link. The man in the center of the picture looks a LOT like Barack Obama but I'm willing to stipulate that it is, in fact, the communist, Nelson Mandela. Would you so stipulate or is the picture another right-wing slander of a "people's hero" a la the murderer, Che Guevera? Do have a look: http://johngaltfla.com/wordpress/2013/12/05/another-communist-terrorist-leader-dies-nelson-mandela-a-m-f/

RenateJakupca
RenateJakupca

I have no doubt about that, so often is the case that one man's Patriot is another man's Rebel

PaulFrantizek
PaulFrantizek

The land the Boers settled was for the most part unoccupied when they arrived.  Most of the Blacks actually followed the Boers into that territory, the Zulus - anti-ANC to the bone - being the notable exception.


Ironically, it was the Zulus who allied with the Boers to resist the Communist insurgency of the ANC.


Also, the Boers were the victims of a rather ugly campaign waged by the British.

ZanderSky
ZanderSky

Mandela used the same brutal tactics that the racist facist Boers used against him. What was he supposed to do as the Boers murdered, stole and abused his people for generations without consequence? pray that they will stop? Of course not! You go to war.

ReneDemonteverde
ReneDemonteverde

@JohnLJordan At least whites under Mandela got better treatment than whites under Obama. Mandela could have treated whites the way Mugabe did but it is to his credit that he was a God fearing man.