He knew it could be his last chance to exercise the democratic rights that he had pursued for his entire life. Too frail to leave his house, Nelson Mandela had the ballot box brought to him.
It was only a municipal election, and most South Africans had seemed indifferent to it. Yet the image of the elderly and weak Mr. Mandela, going to such lengths to cast his vote, helped to galvanize the country. The turnout at the 2011 election, instead of declining as expected, ended up being above average.
Despite the inequality and poverty that persist here, South Africa remains among the continent’s healthiest democracies, and the conciliatory principles of Nelson Mandela are one of the key reasons why this is so. Voting is consistently peaceful, well-organized and fervently embraced, election after election – largely because of his political beliefs and his unwavering belief in racial co-existence.
Long after his retirement from the political stage, Mr. Mandela’s moderating influence can be felt every day in South Africa: in its remarkably progressive constitution, in its rejection of racial conflict, and in its mixed economic model that disavowed the nationalization demands of the ruling party’s left-wing factions.
But will this legacy survive, or will South Africans, despite 20 years of nurturing by their liberation hero, stray from the democratic path now that he has gone? There are scandals, extremists and the occasional race-baiting speech – yet South Africa has stuck to the path that Mr. Mandela blazed.
When I moved to South Africa at the end of 2008, he was already retired and living largely in seclusion, his health deteriorating. Yet I witnessed how he fought to keep democracy alive in his fractious country.
At the final rally of the 2009 national election, I watched him struggle painfully up the stairs to a stage at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium to renew his support to his party, the African National Congress (ANC). A few days later, I saw him cast his ballot in Houghton, the suburb where he lived. I remember how the voters lining up outside the polling station spontaneously burst into song, euphoric at the sight of him.
A year later, I heard a crowd of 84,000 cheer like thunder when he appeared, briefly, at Soccer City stadium – an eruption of gratitude for his vision of a non-racial South Africa and his fearless campaign to play host to the World Cup, an event that inspired and united people of all races. South Africa was awarded the cup because Mr. Mandela was more than just the man who had ended the tyranny of apartheid. He had become a moral beacon who inspired the world with the power of possibilities.
He lived in an age of ideology, yet he floated above politics. While in office, he made mistakes because of his inexperience in economics and administration, but his core beliefs – racial reconciliation, forgiveness, personal sacrifice, confidence in the goodness of humanity and a willingness to admit to shortcomings – were universal values and struck a profound chord among people everywhere.
The details of his life, like those of the Dalai Lama or Mikhail Gorbachev, have long been surpassed by the mythology of a global icon, the magnetism of celebrity and the inspiration people took from his legend. He was shrewd enough to recognize this, and to transform it into a force for good. Even in his final years, he chose his public causes wisely, transforming his fame and charisma into a moral movement. People called it the “Mandela magic.” It somehow helped people to discover their own goodness.
As former U.S. president Bill Clinton put it, “Every time Nelson Mandela walks into a room, we all feel a little bigger. We all want to stand up, we all want to cheer, because we’d like to be him on our best day.”
In his final years, he came up with another master stroke: He transformed his birthday, July 18, into an international day of sacrifice. Mandela Day has become a call to everyone in the world to devote 67 minutes to humanitarian work – one minute for every year that he spent struggling to liberate his country.
Today, that country has no one of his moral stature to take his place. But predictions of ruination were proved wrong after he departed the political stage, and likely will be confounded again.
His work was flawed, his policies at times indecisive – yet his fundamental values remain resilient; his struggle has been won.
Consider one of his political heirs, President Jacob Zuma. Since winning the ANC’s leadership in 2007, Mr. Zuma has often been embroiled in allegations of corruption and mismanagement. But he accepted the essential Mandela lesson of national rapprochement: building a multiracial cabinet, courting minorities, learning some Afrikaans – and even disco dancing with the white leader of the opposition.
If a South African president can accept these values, long after Mr. Mandela’s retirement, it seems clear that the country will survive the great man’s death. His beliefs were stronger than his faltering health, and they will carry on after him.
Demagogues and rogues still thrive here, as they do anywhere. But note what happened in 2011 when a black government official mused that mixed-race South Africans should be forcibly relocated so that they are less numerous in their Western Cape stronghold. The suggestion was swiftly shot down by a cabinet minister, Trevor Manuel, who quoted Mr. Mandela’s famous declaration that “I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination.” Nearly half a century after that speech, his words were still inspiring a multiracial vision of South Africa.
Mr. Mandela was no saint, but somehow became more like one when his failings were exposed.
Late in life, his weaknesses were dissected more aggressively. Young Mandela, by British author David James Smith, documented his troubled personal life and early sexual adventures. Another book, by prominent scholar and journalist R.W. Johnson, denounced the “Mandela cult” and portrayed its hero as naive and powerless, someone who obediently recited speeches scripted by others, allowing his country to drift into the hands of venal political figures.
Even his allies said he had made errors. “His one weakness has been his unshakable loyalty to his comrades,” Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote in an introduction to a biography of Mr. Mandela. This was true. He was excessively loyal to the ANC, even its worst leaders. And he ignored the human-rights abuses in countries such as Libya and Cuba because they had supported the ANC in its anti-apartheid struggle in the 1980s.
It was also true that, rather than try to conceal his failings, Mr. Mandela often admitted them. “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances,” he once said. He abandoned his long-held communist beliefs in the 1990s when he realized they would have destroyed the economy. He had ignored the devastating AIDS crisis when it first hit Africa, yet he later admitted his mistake and led the battle against the disease, even fighting its stigma by revealing that his own son had died of AIDS.
This ability to admit mistakes, the most human trait of all, was linked clearly to his core belief in the power of reconciliation and forgiveness. He invited one of his former prison guards, a white man, to attend his presidential inauguration. He invited his former apartheid prosecutor to lunch. And he journeyed to the Afrikaner town of Orania, the symbol of intransigent opposition to black rule, to have tea with the widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.
This, in the end, was the great inspiration for the world. He was the man who suffered and chose to forgive. “He took our breath away with his magnanimity,” Archbishop Tutu said.
Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail’s National Newspaper Award-winning Africa correspondent, based in Johannesburg.