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How one man changed the world for good

06 February 2015

Twenty-five years after Nelson Mandela's release from prison, Desmond Tutu is still inspired by his example


Unembittered: Nelson Mandela, accompanied by his wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison on 11 February 1990

Unembittered: Nelson Mandela, accompanied by his wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison on 11 February 1990

A LITTLE over a quarter of a century ago, the world entered a season of seismic change. We learned new Russian words, such as perestroika (listen) and glasnost (openness). The Cold War was suspended, and the Berlin Wall tumbled down. "Democracy" was the word on everyone's lips, from Belgrade to Grozny; from Windhoek to Cape Town.

Then, on 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

South Africa's prodigal son had returned. For 27 years he had been hidden from sight; now he was found. Unlike the son in the parable of Jesus, who squandered his inheritance, this son had grown his fortune.

The Madiba who emerged into the sunshine on that day was a fully formed human being. Displaying neither bitterness at his captors, nor smugness in the afterglow of his eventual political victory, he embodied magnanimity and altruism.

He very clearly understood people's interdependence in the cycle of life: that when the sum of our collective parts move together, humanity can thrive. This is what we call in our part of the world Ubuntu: I am because you are. A person is a person through other persons.

Whereas the global season of political change triggered horrendous conflicts in some parts of the world, the then President of South Africa, F. W. De Klerk, opened the door in his conflict-ridden and divided country, and a miraculously peaceful transition followed.

IT IS difficult to measure the pulse of history while living through it; hindsight affords us the opportunity to scope and reflect.

Whereas some of Madiba's incredible public acts of reconciliation - such as travelling across the country to a whites-only enclave to take tea with the widow of the man dubbed the architect of apartheid - may have appeared gauche in the hands of others, he made it feel like they were old friends.

You might not imagine that the widows of apartheid and anti-apartheid leaders would have much in common. But when Madiba invited them for dinner at his official residence, they broke bread together. His graciousness was contagious; some called it "Madiba Magic".

By sheer force of personality, he bashed down barriers wherever he could find them. One thinks of his remarkable embrace of the Springbok rugby team that won the World Cup in 1995. Rugby was regarded as a bastion of white supremacy; the Springbok logo was widely reviled as an apartheid symbol - until the day that Madiba wore the captain's Number Six at Ellis Park. Wow!

One of the highest peaks over which nations emerging from periods of repression must climb is dealing with the wounds of the past. How to deal with the unhealed scars, the disappearances, the killings, the torture and division. . .

Some argued that the most appropriate route across that peak for South Africa, after 350 years of colonialism and white minority rule, was to convene a series of show trials, similar to the Nuremberg Trials, where some of the most villainous perpetrators could be brought to account for their actions.

But Captain Madiba naturally steered the good ship South Africa off the course of vengeance. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established, which I had the honour to lead. Its purpose was to begin the long and winding process of healing our thoroughly battered and bruised collective soul.

Of course, South Africa is not as perfect today as Madiba hoped it would be. As he receded from public life, so has our mantle slipped as world flavour of the year. It was inevitable, I suppose; for leaders of the calibre of Mandela are very rare. How we miss him.

I believe that Nelson Mandela was a gift from God, not only for South Africans, but for all people across the world. He gave us a glimpse of a world without greed, without selfishness - with forgiveness and love and tolerance and mutual respect. He showed us what we can be. What we ought to be.

Dr Tutu is Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and the author of In God's Hands (the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book 2015).

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