During last week, the drums were out in South Africa for the twentieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison. Like everyone, I remember exactly where I was on that day of all days. I was in the middle of my thesis. An axial shift, it seemed, had occurred in the earth's solar trajectory. The sun was setting over our millennium of shame. I felt I could levitate, walk on air. The quadrangles of Oriel College have never looked more glorious before or since.
Born into the Thembu royal family 91 years ago, the young prince's early obsessions were sports and fashion, until he met Walter Sisulu, who introduced him to the ANC and encouraged him to take up the law. One of the few occasions in which he is known to have publicly succumbed to emotion was at Sisulu's funeral in May 2003. "Xhamela is no more", he wept. "May he live forever; a part of me is gone….By ancestry, I was born to rule. Xhamela helped me understand that my real vocation was to be a servant of the people."
Madiba is not your cerebral intellectual. That prize belongs to Robert Sobukwe, Ruth First and the two Mbekis. But he has qualities that set him apart. He is modest without a false humility; as mischievous as he is charming. A militarily trained commissar, he could be as wily as a serpent and as harmless as a dove.
He has the unfailing courtliness of a born prince. With a lawyer's negotiating toughness, he can wear out any opponent, as former President de Klerk would confirm. But he also has the flexibility of the party dialectician. Master of the idiom and symbology of power, he also appreciates its moral limits, knowing that politics is, indeed, the art of the possible.
Madiba is the epitome of statesmanship, if by the statesman we mean a leader who sacrifices personal interest at the altar of the common good. At the 1964 Rivonia trial, he proclaimed his willingness to die for his people. In prison, he rejected any privileges that were not extended to fellow inmates. It was widely known that the Apartheid chieftains were prepared to put billions into numbered Swiss accounts if only he would compromise. For a time, he played along with the enemy. Just as his comrades were beginning to fear that he might have sold out, quietly but firmly came the message from Robben Island: "The struggle is my life".
Many of us were pained by the awful violence of the transition years. There was the assassination of Chris Hani, the legendary prince who could discourse at once on jurisprudence as he could on the paintings of Vermeer or the music of Bach. Madiba was wise enough to avoid the bait of those who were hell-bent on plunging the country into civil war. Part of his greatness lies in this ability to keep a cool head at those crucial tipping points of history when one wrong move could have set off a chain of irreversible catastrophes. Like the Holy Spirit, he is never in a hurry.
He takes the world as it is, warts and all, and he patiently moulds it with the dexterity of a renaissance master.
For him, politics is not a career; it is a lifelong commitment — a call to justice and human dignity. Former Justice Minister Kobie Coetsee confessed that in spite of his studies of the classics, not until he had met Nelson Mandela did he know "what the Romans meant by onestas, gravitas and dignitas." Behind that ascetic refinement is a heart of steel. A boxing enthusiast in his youth, it was no accident that he was the founder and commander-in-chief of Umkhonto.
Madiba is not to be counted among Rainer Maria Rilke's ‘angelic orders'. He had plodded through law school with difficulty. His first two marriages were a failure. He could be cold and remote. Some have blamed him for a post-Apartheid transition that has left intact many of the inequities of the past. Without a Nuremberg-style trial, many have gotten away with crimes against humanity. The karma of those benighted years will haunt the people of South Africa for a long time. "The white man's favourite politician", his successor Thabo Mbeki once sneered.
For having brought honour to our continent, history will absolve him. Nobel Laureate; Collar of the Nile; Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise; Order of Simon Bolivar; Knight of the Order of the Golden Lion of the House of Nassau; Order of Mapungubwe, Isithwalandwe, Seaparankwe. Tata Khulu Madiba Dalibhunga Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela will live forever.