Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

What made Nelson Mandela great

By John Battersby
updated 6:48 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
Nelson Mandela, the prisoner-turned-president who reconciled South Africa after the end of apartheid, died on Thursday, December 5, according to the country's president, Jacob Zuma. Mandela was 95. Nelson Mandela, the prisoner-turned-president who reconciled South Africa after the end of apartheid, died on Thursday, December 5, according to the country's president, Jacob Zuma. Mandela was 95.
HIDE CAPTION
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
The evolution of Nelson Mandela
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nelson Mandela, who freed South Africa of apartheid, has died at age 95
  • John Battersby: Mandela said that being in prison for 27 years changed his world view
  • "One of the most difficult things is not to change society ... but to change yourself," Mandela said
  • Battersby: Mandela's strength of character made him a potent leader and example for humanity

Editor's note: John Battersby served as a correspondent for The New York Times (1987-89) and the Christian Science Monitor (1989-96) before, during and after South Africa's transition to democracy. He was editor of The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg from 1996 to 2001. He interviewed Mandela on numerous occasions and is coauthor of "Nelson Mandela: A Life in Photographs" (Sterling, 2009) and author of the afterword in the updated version of "Mandela: the Authorized Biography" (Harper Collins, 2011).

(CNN) -- Nelson Mandela was always mindful that his leadership role in the liberation of South Africa from apartheid might not have been possible if he had not been imprisoned.

"It is possible that if I had not gone to jail and been able to read and listen to the stories of many people. ... I might not have learned these things," Mandela said of the insights that he gained during his 27 years in jail.

In an interview less than a year after he had stepped down as the country's first black president, Mandela shared with me reflections of how prison changed him.

John Battersby
John Battersby

He said that reading the biographies of great leaders who had been able to overcome their shortcomings and rise to do great things had inspired him. He said it also helped him to realize that behind every seemingly ordinary person lay the potential of greatness.

"I have been surprised a great deal sometimes when I see somebody who looks less than ordinary, but when you talk to the person and they open their mouths, they are something completely different," he said.

Mandela said that prison gave him time to think about the times when he had failed to acknowledge people who had been kind to him.

Mandela said that at the height of the struggle against apartheid, he and other leaders were understandably angry at the humiliation and loss of dignity of those who suffered under the unjust policy. It meant their actions were driven by anger and emotion rather than by reflection and consultation.

"But in jail -- especially for those who stayed in single cells -- you had enough opportunity to sit down and think," he said.

There was time to listen to the stories of people who were highly educated and who were widely traveled and experienced. "When they told of their experiences, you felt humbled," he said.

Mandela said that he had learned that when you had the moral high ground, it was better to sit down and talk to people and persuade them of the correctness of your cause.

"If you have an objective in life, then you want to concentrate on that and not engage in infighting with your enemies," he said. "You want to create an atmosphere where you can move everybody toward the goal you have set for yourself," Mandela said.

Nelson Mandela: A man of many handshakes

In his twilight, Mandela was at pains to publish and acknowledge his weaknesses and shortcomings in his family life, in his relationships with women and his first wife, Evelyn. He was keen to dispel any notion of sainthood that might be bestowed on him.

He also spoke increasingly about the importance of changing oneself.

"One of the most difficult things is not to change society -- but to change yourself," Mandela said in 1999 at a tribute to billionaire businessman Douw Steyn who had made his Johannesburg residence available to Mandela as a retreat after his prison release in 1990.

Mandela had given similar advice to wife Winnie in a letter written to her in 1981 after she had been jailed by the apartheid regime. Mandela noted that there were qualities "in each one of us" that form the basis of our spiritual life and that we can change ourselves by observing our reactions to the unfolding of life.

Ten years later, Mandela said that it gave him a feeling of fulfillment to see that Douw Steyn had changed and had learned to share his resources with the poor.

"It enables me to go to bed with an enriching feeling in my soul and the belief that I am changing myself" by reconciling with former adversaries, Mandela said.

I believe that the essence of Mandela's greatness was to change himself fundamentally during his period in jail and emerge as a potent leader and example for all humanity.

Opinion: Nelson Mandela saved my life

The reflections took me back to the extraordinary day of Mandela's release. The day the legend became a man. Even now, the moment seems frozen in time.

It was February 11, 1990, and the African sun shone from a clear blue sky on a windless summer's day in Cape Town. About an hour's drive from the city, the international media thronged around the entrance of a neat prison warder's house to await the emergence of one of the century's most iconic figures.

I had arrived late at the prison and wandered unnoticed into the prison grounds where my slate-blue cotton suit coincidentally blended in with the uniform color of the South African police. That might have had something to do with the fact that I was not challenged when I strode confidently into the prison grounds. But to this day I do not know.

An unscheduled wait of an hour while Mandela consulted an anti-apartheid delegation including his wife Winnie, who had arrived an hour late, seemed like an eternity.

When Mandela, flanked by Winnie, finally emerged walking down the driveway towards the prison premise gates, I lost all sense of time and self and strode towards Mandela to shake his hand and congratulate him on his freedom.

He recognized me from the photograph that accompanied my regular column I had written for the Cape Times, where I often analyzed the successes and setbacks of the anti-apartheid movement and the African National Congress in exile.

His face broke into a broad smile as we shook hands and he continued his historic walk to freedom.

At the time, I was the southern Africa correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor which was for many years the only international news publication that Mandela was allowed to read in jail albeit in a vetted form with pages and sections frequently removed.

On his first visit to the United States in 1990, Mandela broke from his official program on Sunday, June 24 to pay an unscheduled visit to the headquarters of the Monitor at One Norway Street in Boston to the astonishment of the editor and staff. (Today the Monitor is online only. The newspaper ceased daily publication in 2009.)

South Africa since apartheid: Boom or bust?

I received an incredulous call from my foreign editor, Jane Lampman, on that Sunday asking me if I could guess who was standing outside the building with two bodyguards asking to see the editor. It was, she said, Nelson Mandela. I was astonished too.

Mandela was intrigued that the founder of the newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, also founded a religion. Mandela came to respect the Monitor's sustained and fair coverage of South Africa during his time in jail.

To this day, Mandela's weaknesses, his turbulent youth and his sometimes tempestuous relationships with women can still detract from the iconic status that Mandela achieved in his own lifetime.

But, the responsible airing of his weaknesses -- including his own acknowledgment -- in fact humanized Mandela and focused on his extraordinary strength of character and commitment in overcoming both his weaknesses and adversity in his own lifetime. It augmented Mandela's greatness.

Carrying on the work of Nelson Mandela

It is Mandela's achievement as a universal icon that has always fascinated me most. He first conquered his jailers by convincing them that they were the ones imprisoned by their own unsustainable policies based on fear and racial injustice. And then he negotiated them out of power with the sheer force of his moral authority and belief in himself.

Mandela's example and actions in becoming the country's first black president struck a mortal blow to racism worldwide and helped build confidence and pave the way for Barack Obama to pull off a similar feat in the United States.

If Mandela has a global heir in the ongoing campaign against racism and the quest for human dignity it has to be Barack Hussein Obama.

The power of Mandela's leadership was rooted in the fact that at key moments in his life he acted independently of the movement to which he dedicated his life and to which he deferred as a "loyal and obedient" member.

He did so when he decided in 1986 to begin negotiating with his jailers from behind bars not knowing where it would end. He did so in continuing to refer to former President F. W. de Klerk as a "man of integrity" long after it was less popular to do so in the ranks of the African National Congress.

And he did so again when he went out on a limb within his own constituency after his release to support the overwhelmingly white South African rugby team in the World Cup in 1995.

Mandela said that even if he wanted to he could not bind future generations to remember history in a particular way.

The lesson of Mandela's life is that he has no need to bind anyone to his legacy nor does he need any organization to do so.

His actions in his own lifetime are his legacy and they will remain indelibly etched in history for generations to come as a living example to inspire the leaders of tomorrow.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Battersby.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:28 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT