I have had the honor to learn from Nelson Mandela in innumerable ways during the past 28 years.
In the mid-80s, I learned about the personal sacrifices he made to fight for the liberation of his people and the country. During this time I first became involved in taking the often awkward steps from considering injustice to doing something about it after being exposed to the brutality of apartheid during the state of emergency. Grappling with guilt at my various levels of privilege in American society, I somehow felt soothed by what I saw as the unalloyed moral clarity of black South Africans fighting against the evil white oppressive government. I hungered to go there and know that land.
In 1990, shortly after his release from Victor Verster prison, I took part of the afternoon off from selling Green Monster and Bleacher Creature t-shirts at Fenway Park to head down to the Esplanade with my best friend Vinnie D’Angelo. Hearing the unbowed Mandela thank, in his firm formal and heavily accented tones, “the peo-ple of Mass-a-shoe-setts” for their role in the anti-apartheid movement helped me understand humanity’s interconnectedness and the ceaseless struggle for justice that he continued to wage until his final breath.
In 1991, I learned about his fierce determination as he strode up to the front of the hall where negotiations were being held between Mandela’s African National Congress and F.W. deKlerk’s ruling National Party and answered the leader’s attack against the ANC.
“Even the head of an illegitimate, discredited, minority regime as his, has certain moral
standards to uphold,” Mandela said in icy tones. “He has no excuse, because he is a representative of a discredited regime, not to uphold moral standards.
“And he has abused his position because he hoped that I would not reply. He was completely mistaken. I am replying now,” Mandela continued.
In 1994, I wept as I watched 89-year-old women being carried into voting booths they had waited a lifetime to enter. Dressed in a blue three-piece suit, Mandela demonstrated the importance of a leder’s words in articulating the hopes and standards of a wounded country emerging from its darkest time when he delivered his often-quoted, if not fully realized, injunction that, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”
In 1995, I realized a decade-long dream by living in Alan Paton’s Beloved Country. I taught and coached at the Uthongathi School, one of the nation’s first private multi-racial educational institutions.
It was one of the most important years of my life, and learning from Madiba was at the core.
My Fulbright exchange partner Vukani Cele got to meet then-President Bill Clinton.
I didn’t have the equivalent experience, but my education from Mandela continued nevertheless.
I had the privilege to witness the nation opening its wounds and delve into seemingly unspeakable public pain during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was a central element of Mandela’s effort to help move the nation forward, and, later, a model for the world.
This would not have been possible had Mandela not been able to master himself and his anger, to study the language of the Afrikaaners who imprisoned him for close to 30 years so that he could understand them, and to reach out not just to their leaders, but to their heart in his embrace of the Springboks, the rugby team who won an improbable victory over New Zealand’s mighty All Blacks just months before I arrived in August 1995.
I saw Mandela in person at a soccer tournament, and could scarcely believe the childlike joy he elicited in the tens of thousands of people who practically burst with joy at the sight of their leader driving around and waving to them.
I watched him dazzle English royalty during a fundraising trip with his dancing while wearing one of his many famous multi-colored shirts, his fists moving from side to side as he swayed to the music.
I also learned about his sense of humor, not the least of which was his ability to laugh at himself.
That quality was on full display in 1998, when he traveled to Harvard to become the first African to receive an honorary degree from the country’s oldest, most prestigious university.
He concluded his remarks by telling the audience who had gathered in the Yard about a cheeky 5-year-old girl who had called him a stupid old man.
If you agree with her, I would ask you to be a bit more diplomatic than this young lady, he said with a smile.
Mandela continued to teach in how he retired from politics, leaving the presidency after one term when he could have easily won a second term because he wanted to strengthen the nation’s fledgling democracy.
He showed and lived the importance of speaking about even most taboo topics, talking about AIDS after he buried his son Makgatho, who had died of the disease.
He published a book of watercolors, supported dozens of charities and served on the global Council of Elders.
He even taught in his death.
Last December, Dunreith and I were with dear friend Ntuthuko Bhengu, whom I met during the year Vukani was working in Newton, when Madiba was going through yet another death scare.
Each time prepares us for the inevitable, Ntuthuko told me.
Today, mercifully, it came.
And, with it, the beginning of the sleep in the permanent peace he has so richly earned.
Of course, Mandela was not perfect.
No one is.
But, perhaps more than anyone during my close to half-century of life, he lived a near-perfect blend of service, integrity, leadership and humanity.
The world, and we, are better because of him.
Siyabonga kakulu, Madiba.
Usi Letela Uxolo.