Before his release from prison, he had insisted that nationalizing South Africa’s mines, banks and major industries was ironclad ANC policy and that imposing state control of certain sectors of the economy was “unavoidable.”
Yet four years later, to head off violence and economic collapse, he changed his tune. His government agreed to assume the national debt incurred by the apartheid regime, to guarantee white civil servants their jobs, to protect private property (thus almost ruling out land reform) and to make the central bank independent of the government (thus insulating it from attempts to redistribute national wealth).
The ANC also agreed to sign on to GATT, the precursor to the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which reassured financial markets, but made a radical overhaul of the country’s economic power base almost impossible.
Broken promises even plagued his personal life. Winnie’s flagrant philandering had prompted the couple to separate in 1992. When their divorce case was heard four years later, Mandela described his loneliness to the court, explaining that since his release, she had refused to discuss their personal problems and “not once has she ever entered my bedroom while I was awake.”
Also in 1996, the Mandela government launched something designed to be much more positive – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Desmond Tutu, who’d stepped down as Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town. All who felt they had been victimized could air their grievances, and perpetrators could acknowledge their crimes and seek amnesty. The ANC considered the commission essential to the peaceful transition to full democracy, but critics condemned it, arguing that justice must be done before true reconciliation could occur.
The commission presented its report in October, 1998, and the following year, as promised, Mandela stepped down rather than seek a second term, handing power to Mbeki. “He served as an example to all those hungry for power by not standing for a second term,” his lawyer George Bizos said afterward. “He didn’t want South Africa to be known as a one-man state.”
In his later years, Mandela devoted himself to his children’s foundation and to fighting HIV-AIDs, which had spread rapidly while he was in office and preoccupied with other problems. “This is a war,” he said. “It has killed more people than has been the case in all previous wars and in all previous natural disasters. We must not continue to be debating, to be arguing, when people are dying.”
In his old age, this man who had been allowed only three visits with his children during the long years on Robben Island and who had been publicly humiliated, after his release, by Winnie’s blatant promiscuity, was given the gift of a passionate love affair. On his 80th birthday in 1998, he married Graça Machel, the widow of Samora Machel, the first president of post-independence Mozambique.
They connected after her husband died in a mysterious 1986 plane crash that many believe was ordered by the South African government. From his cell Mandela sent her a letter of condolence, to which she replied: “From within your vast prison, you brought a ray of light into my hour of darkness.”
After Mandela retired from public life in 1999, the couple spent time with their various grandchildren, at her home in Mozambique and at the house on his ancestral property at Qunu in the Transkei. Looking frail except when his beatific smile brightened up his face, the man everybody loved to call Madiba, his clan name, usually walked with a cane.
His short-term memory was as faltering as his gait, but he still used his influence to focus international attention on intractable issues. For his 89th birthday in 2007, he brought a group of world leaders to Johannesburg to form The Elders, a consortium of wisdom, integrity and influence chaired by Tutu. With such founding members as former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan and U.S. president Jimmy Carter, he said, the group could work “freely and boldly to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair.”
A month after that, he and Machel travelled to London to see his statue unveiled in the square across from the Houses of Parliament, near likenesses of Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln.
He told the crowd how he had been to the site 45 years earlier while in London to visit Oliver Tambo after going underground. The two fugitives walked among the monuments to dead white men, including legendary Boer leader Jan Smuts who’d become South Africa’s prime minister, and said that one day there would be a statue honouring them, too, although they didn’t really think it would come to pass.
It did, but only because of a remarkable man and a monumental change in human and political values.