Mandela for the Ages

When it comes to national leadership at a time of fragility and transition, so much seems to depend on the luck of the draw. South Africa was lucky – almost miraculously so – to have had Nelson Mandela.

MELBOURNE – Without Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s apartheid nightmare eventually would have come to an end. Its enforcers were beyond the civilized pale, and the world’s patience with them had run out. But, without Mandela’s towering moral and political leadership, the transition would have been long, ugly, and bloody beyond measure.

One Afrikaner leader, F.W. De Klerk, came to understand – late, but not too late – what the times demanded, and he thoroughly deserved to share the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela. But it was Madiba – the tribal name by which South Africans of every caste and color now affectionately call him – who made the crucial difference.

I was lucky enough, as Australia’s foreign minister at the time, to be one of the first foreign officials to greet him after his release from prison in February 1990 – just a few days later, in Lusaka, where he had flown to meet his African National Congress colleagues in exile. Approaching the meeting, I was excited but nervous. Could the reality of the man possibly match my expectations?

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