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Mandela for the Ages

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?

Mandela had long been my personal hero, from my student days in the 1960’s, when – like so many others of my generation – I was an anti-apartheid activist. We knew that the risks we ran of being roughed up or arrested while demonstrating against visiting Springbok rugby teams were entirely trivial compared to the risks that he and his colleagues had been prepared to face.