Like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela had one shining hour that eclipsed everything else and made the world better.

Nelson Mandela belongs to a very rare class of great men.  Such men are remembered not only for their great deeds, not only for making our world better, but for bearing a special grace that transcends the business of their age.  They are the stuff of folklore. In the 20th century I can think of only two examples: Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. But even Gandhi was susceptible to pious humbug. ‘It takes a lot of money to keep Gandhi in poverty,’ said one of his advisers. Mandela was never seduced by the grandeur of humbleness. Among men who attained power, he is probably unique in the past hundred years.

Churchill and Mandela, different in most ways, had this in common. Each had his shining hour. Despite their failures and periods of isolation, each had a moment that eclipsed everything else and made the world better. Churchill’s came in 1940 when his gleaming courage, clarity and leadership saved Europe for democracy against the menace of Hitler’s National Socialism. Mandela’s came in 1994 when, after a lifetime of hardship and persecution, he became the first democratic president of South Africa. He wasn’t a very good president except for one thing, which surpassed everything else: his grace. It flowed like a healing balm over a fearful, angry and anxious land. It disarmed his most ferocious enemies and soothed his most vengeful allies. The great dread of civil war ended the moment he spoke to the nation. For all its problems, South Africa has complete political stability, and this we owe to Nelson Mandela.

There was a ridiculous urban legend that Mandela’s death would be a signal for blacks to turn upon the whites. On the contrary, it has unified the nation in grief and love, if momentarily. Mandela’s whole life is synonymous with the fight against apartheid. His vehicle was the ANC (African National Congress), formed in 1912. The ANC and Mandela are now both shrouded in mythology. For the ANC, the myth and the reality are different. For Mandela, they are the same.

The great myth is that the ANC, with only marginal help from others, overthrew apartheid by heroic armed struggle. It is nonsense. The original ANC consisted of dignified black Christian gentlemen wanting nothing other than the simple human rights of western civilisation. They were shunned by white South African governments until 1948, then abused by the apartheid governments that followed. The ANC marched along, justly and ineffectually, against a stupid and cruel white minority rule. Mandela joined in 1943. In 1960 the ANC was banned. In 1961, despairing of peaceful persuasion, Mandela helped form the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), ‘Spear of the Nation’, whose aim was to sabotage installations without taking life. In 1964 he was arrested for sabotage, gave his testimony in the Rivonia Trial, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent the next 27 years in jail.

1976 saw the turning point in the history of apartheid, the Soweto Riots. After these, the masters of apartheid stopped fooling themselves that their system could work and began their slow, clumsy and bloody retreat from it, hoping they could somehow cling to white minority power. The ANC was equally shocked by the riots because they had had no part in them: they were organised by ‘Black Consciousness’ groups such as the Pan African Congress, with leaders such as Steve Biko. The ANC realised it had no control over the black masses. It decided to seize control.

Thus began the ANC’s ‘People’s War’ of the 1980s. The ANC organised a reign of terror in the black townships, which it sought to make ‘ungovernable’. It never dared to take on the armed forces of apartheid. Overwhelmingly its victims were other blacks, with the occasional outrage against white civilians. The bloodshed was appalling. The aim was to crush all black opponents, in which it was mightily successful everywhere except in Natal, where it was opposed by the Zulus of Prince Buthelezi (a consistent, unyielding opponent of apartheid). The ANC was not so much fighting to end apartheid as fighting to stop anybody else ending it. President P.W. Botha did exactly as it had hoped by striking back with bewildered violence, often before the lenses of the world’s press photographers.

In February 1990, President F.W. de Klerk made his speech that essentially ended apartheid, unbanned the ANC and released Mandela.

Apartheid ended because the Afrikaners in control knew it was morally indefensible and economically ruinous. For revolutionary romantics, it is hateful to acknowledge that Afrikaner decency was a fundamental reason for apartheid’s demise. In 1990, there was no physical threat to the apartheid state. De Klerk had more than enough armed force to crush anything the ANC could throw at him. He could have ruled indefinitely over an increasingly miserable and oppressive country. He chose not to.

Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 at the age of 71, and began his progress to power. He had been shut away during the horrors of the People’s War (what he thought of it in retrospect is not a question anybody asks). During his 27 years in prison he had been turned into a legend. When people saw him for the first time they could compare the legend with the man, and found them identical.

During the four years’ negotiations for a democratic South Africa, Mandela proved tough and shrewd, constantly wrong–footing de Klerk. An ANC colleague, Cyril Ramaphosa, said, ‘Mandela is a very stubborn man. He has nerves of steel.’ The negotiations led to a much-admired liberal constitution and South Africa’s first fully democratic election on 27 April 1994. The ANC won by a landslide and Mandela became the president of South Africa.

I was working in a mill in Natal at the time, among tough white racists who thought de Klerk was a traitor and were hoping (vaguely) for an armed uprising against the black government. Election day itself was unexpectedly peaceful and happy but the mood after it was tense. Then President Mandela began to be heard over South Africa. You could feel the tension melting away; the white racists were amazed to find themselves falling under his charm; implacable white foes became champions of the new multiracial South Africa. Tales of his humility, forgiveness and concern for the little man multiplied. I’ve spoken to people who witnessed it. Mandela would arrive at the door of important event; some elderly white footman would screw up his courage and approach him for an autograph for his grand-daughter. Mandela would say in that distinctive voice, ‘And what is your name, sir?’ He would see him later. Two hours later, when the event was over, Mandela would seek him out, ask him about his life and family, and sign a charming note to his granddaughter.

If ANC rule has not been a great success, nor has it been the disaster many feared. President Mandela, with little interest in economics, left his deputy, Thabo Mbeki, to steer the national finances along the path of rectitude, with low debt, the ANC government’s greatest achievement. On other matters that needed decisive action, such as dreadfully high unemployment and the HIV/AIDS catastrophe, the old Mandela dithered or allowed others to over-rule him. But he presided over a peaceful transition to democracy, and that trumps everything else.

Mandela and Churchill also had this in common: both were simple, generous men. Neither seemed capable of malice or spite. This emerges in their writing. Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, gives the highest praise and affection for Helen Suzman, who visited him in prison, acknowledges the fairness of the Afrikaner judge who gave him the life sentence, and even has some warm words for President P.W. Botha, who met him once. (He would have preferred to negotiate with Botha than de Klerk, for the simple reason that they were the same age.)

I only saw Mandela once in the flesh. This was on 31 December 1999, on Robben Island, where he had been imprisoned. I was a reporter covering the millennium celebrations. The journalists were huddled at one end of a large tent and at the other was a long table for distinguished guests, including Mandela. He had finished his first and only reign as president. When dinner was over, Mandela got up and walked, or rather shuffled, to a central space to speak. The journalists rushed over to him. I stood close enough to touch him. I was shocked at how old, bent and frail he looked. I should never have predicted he would survive another 13 years. He spoke a few words, weak but clear, and entirely platitudinous, but so is most of the virtue of the ages.

During the dinner, having heard of Mandela’s spartan habits and conscious of my own boozy ones, I watched with interest how he would deal with the glass of white wine before him. I saw him raise it to his lips at polite intervals and raise it into the air for various toasts and salutations. But at the end of dinner, I’m blessed if I could see the slightest decline in its level.

In this he was different from Winston Churchill.

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