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Memories of Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela Photo:

Just before the historic first democratic elections in South Africa we were living in Houghton, Johannesburg, a suburb of wide roads lined by Jacaranda trees and large houses hidden behind high walls and electric fences.

Living a few hundred yards from us was Nelson Mandela, soon to be the first black president of his country.

Mandela gestures from the gallery at the opening of parliament in Cape Town. Credit: REUTERS/Schalk van Zuydam/Pool

It was a time of huge expectation but also of violence, crime, chaos and fear. Mandela’s great fear was that the white population would take fright and take flight at the prospect of black rule.

One day the local ANC called a meeting at a church hall in Houghton to reassure local whites.

My wife went along and listened to a dull speech by an ANC official. After half an hour the doors opened and in walked a group of ululating women accompanied by the tall, unmistakable figure of Nelson Mandela.

He smiled, shook hands with everybody and took to the stage.

”We want to build a new South Africa,” he said. ”And we can’t do it without you.” My wife and many others were moved to tears.

It is a story that epitomises the great man that Mandela was. I was fortunate to interview him before and after he became president.

Each time his message was the same. He spoke of reconciliation, inclusiveness and forgiveness.

This was from a man imprisoned by the apartheid regime for 27 long years. This remarkable lack of bitterness and hatred was a large part of the reason South Africa made a relatively peaceful transition from the appalling iniquities of apartheid to democracy.

Could it have happened without Mandela? Possibly. But probably not.

I once travelled with him by boat to Robben Island. He showed me his tiny prison cell, 8 ft by 7 ft with straw matting on the concrete floor. His prisoner number was 46664. (He was the 466th prisoner of 1964).

Nelson Mandela looks on as he celebrates his 94th birthday at his house in Qunu, Eastern Cape July 18, 2012. Credit: REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

But what I remember most is what he said. What he had learnt, he said, was that hatred achieved nothing. We had to be better than that, he said.

He forgave his jailers and forged a long lasting friendship with some of them. It was hugely significant.

He went on to prevent a descent into civil war, seeing off the threat of extremist white right wingers bent on carving out their own homeland, and bringing relative peace to the townships plagued by political and tribal violence.

The lack of progress on alleviating the hardships of the poor and unemployed will have disappointed him.

Almost 20 years after he lead the ANC to victory, life for millions of black people remains desperately tough.

But he achieved what he set out to achieve. His people have freedom, dignity and the vote.

And for that he will be remembered as one of the world’s most revered statesmen.

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