To be sure, there will be revisionist biographies in the future, and the icon will become more tarnished, possibly with some justification. But he is one of the few heads of a national liberation movement, who, having gained power, did not tragically disappoint. So, a happy 90th birthday to Nelson Mandela. Drew Forrest in the Mail and Guardian (Johannesburg):
His lack of bitterness and readiness not just to forgive, but also to share a liberated South Africa with his former oppressors was the source of the now-vanished optimism of his presidential term.
He understood that apartheid could not be defeated by peaceful means, but is not a violent man. Holidaying in the Eastern Cape in 1955, he was mortified when he ran over a large snake. “I do not like killing any living thing, even those creatures that fill some people with dread,” he wrote.
No Easy Walk is strewn with touching examples of his kindness and old-fashioned chivalry. It describes, for example, the embarrassment of a white secretary at his first legal firm when she was seen taking dictation from him. “She took a sixpence from her purse and said stiffly: ‘Nelson, please go out and get some shampoo from the chemist.’ I left the room and got her shampoo.”
He returns again and again to the pain inflicted on his family by his activism and long jail term and his torment over the government’s persecution of Winnie while he was powerless to support her.
Ordinary people respond not just to Mandela the leader and emancipator, but also to Mandela the suffering man. Few could be unmoved by his testimony, during his divorce proceedings, of his terrible loneliness when he moved from prison to a dying marriage.
He is, at heart, an optimist who finds it hard to give up on his frail fellow creatures.
One of the central passages of No Easy Walk concerns the brutal Colonel Piet Badenhorst, who, assuming command of the prison in 1971, began rolling back the small gains the prisoners had accumulated. One of his habits was to urinate next to them at the quarry while they were eating.
Yet when Badenhorst was transferred after a determined campaign by the inmates, he summoned Mandela and told him, as one human being to another: “I just want to wish you people good luck.”
“It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency,” was Mandela’s reading of the incident, “and that if their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing.”