My oldest son, now an adult, was a toddler when Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years imprisoned on Robben Island. I held my squirming son in my lap as I watched the historic occasion and tried to get him to watch, too. He was bored and distracted; I was stunned and mesmerized. Nelson Mandela a free man, a man I only learned about in college when I also first learned about South Africa’s apartheid system. I couldn’t believe such a system existed, even given the disgraceful history of the U.S.; it was beyond my imagination to think that such a system could exist in modern times.
When I heard the news of Mandela’s death at the age of 95, I was gratified that one of the books I’ve read recently was John Carlin’s Knowing Mandela, scheduled for the February 1, 2014 issue of Booklist, Spotlight on Black History.
Carlin was the first foreign correspondent to interview Mandela as president of South Africa. Carlin covered Mandela’s release in 1990 and spent the next five years covering Mandela’s historic presidency. In 2009, Carlin met again with Mandela as the former president’s health was failing. Beyond the hard-bitten image of the objective reporter, Carlin fully admits to deep admiration for Mandela.
Carlin details the personal and political struggles of a man who’d journeyed from freedom fighter to prisoner to president and revered statesman. Mandela had the charisma and pragmatism necessary to insist that South African whites own up to the truth of the brutality of apartheid and that all South Africans (black, white, and other) be willing to reconcile the painful past for the sake of the future. His stunning charisma disarmed everyone, as Carlin relates story after story of sworn enemies and skeptics falling under the spell of Mandela’s kindness and decency. For me, this was the most gratifying part of the memoir, to read that Mandela was the real deal, that his public dignity, decency and integrity were elemental to the private man as well.
I’m also grateful that that same squirming toddler as a high school student got a chance to travel to South Africa and see for himself the nation that had struggled with apartheid and still had a long way to go, as does the US, in healing the wounds of the past. But thanks to Mandela’s example, all nations are at least a bit farther along the way.