Skip to main content

Mandela was avatar of upending world

By David Rothkopf
updated 7:38 PM EST, Fri December 6, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Rothkopf met Mandela after he was freed from prison
  • He says Mandela was unique in achieving victory in a nonviolent way.
  • But he also was symbol for a time of challenges to power
  • Rothkopf: Mandela was the avatar of an era in which the 'unchangeable' could change

Editor's note: David Rothkopf writes regularly for CNN.com. He is CEO and editor-at-large of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy magazine, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow him on Twitter at @djrothkopf.

(CNN) -- The first time I met Nelson Mandela was almost exactly 20 years ago. It was my first week in the Clinton administration and I had joined a trip to South Africa with my boss, Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. South Africa had yet to complete its transition to representative democracy, yet to put the stain of apartheid behind it. But the transformation had started.

A reception was held for our delegation and Mandela was present. Charismatic, preternaturally graceful and dignified, he quietly chatted with each member of the group, posing for photos, smiling. One can only imagine how discordant his new role as hero and dignitary and certain future president was with his fairly recent past as a prisoner. But on a rolling green lawn in an elegant setting, he was the still center of the universe for all present. This father of change seemed to embody the unchanging, the enduring.

I stood to the side, not wanting to get between him and the visiting CEOs and dignitaries. After a while, he and Brown seemed to notice that I was at the edge of the gathering, clearly shy. They exchanged a word or two and then Ron beckoned me over. He introduced me to Mandela and for just a few minutes the three of us spoke. This would be a better story if I remembered a word of what was said. But I don't. I just remember that Mandela took the time, made the connection, seemed to listen to what I was saying and that at the end of it all, he said, "Thank you for coming to South Africa."

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf

The notion of him thanking me for anything, even as a polite gesture, was absurd. Of all the leaders I have known in my life, and it has been my good fortune to meet quite a few, none conveyed leadership as effortlessly.

While he had yet to achieve his apotheosis -- the moment when the old South African regime ended and he, its onetime victim, was elevated to preside over a new, hopeful, incomparably more equitable era -- even by the time I met him, he had achieved a unique status on the world stage. He had made his remarkable journey and achieved victory in his nonviolent way. He had entered history and hearts worldwide. He didn't need an election to lead his people. He simply led. He inspired.

But there was something more. Mandela was a great symbol, but he was elevated further still by a particular moment in the history of the planet.

Seven years earlier, in the Philippines, Corazon Aquino had led the People Power Revolution that ousted the Marcos regime. Three years after that, people crowded Tiananmen Square and sent the unmistakable message that China must change. They were put down, but their spirit so endures that the memory of their uprising still galvanizes the Chinese people and puts fear in the heart of many in the Chinese leadership.

Nelson Mandela: Obama's personal hero
Mandela's closest confidant
Clinton: 'We had a genuine friendship'
Mary Robinson Remembers Mandela

And just a few months after that the Velvet Revolution toppled the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Elsewhere throughout the former Soviet Union, pillars of its strength were crumbling and by 1991, that onetime superpower had fallen.

Mandela had been released from prison in February 1990. Imagine the upheaval in those years. The unshakable had been shaken. The unbreakable had been broken. Those whose power seemed unassailable had been deposed by those who had moments earlier seemed powerless.

Mandela was the avatar of an era that reminded us that history is made by men and women of courage and that it can dismiss in the blinking of an eye all that seems unchanging.

Mandela is a symbol of resistance to apartheid. He is a father to his country. But he was also a powerful symbol of the times in which he lived. He was hope incarnate. He was a message to all those brought down by injustice that no matter what the odds, no matter how impossible ultimate victory may seem, not to give up.

Today, many lament the injustices and grave errors of these times. Growing inequality. Enduring racism. Insensitivity to the frailties of our planet. Oppression of countless groups, simply because of ethnic origin or religious beliefs or because they are women. We are frustrated that our governments seem to have lost their ability to govern. We worry that we are unable to rise to the challenges of our moment.

And so in the death of Mandela comes yet another of his gifts to the world: a reminder not only of what he did but of the stunning changes that swept the world in the time of his triumph. It is a coda to a great life, a reminder to cast aside resignation and defeatism and know that great hearts do exist. And they sometimes do make the impossible happen.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Rothkopf.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:25 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT