It may not be what you think.
This story originally appeared in the October 2007 edition of The Progressive magazine. It is republished here to mark the sad event of Nelson Mandela's passing at 95 years of age.
By Andrew Meldrum
An awe-inspiring array of senior world leaders assembled on a Johannesburg stage on July 18, including Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, and former Irish President Mary Robinson. Also present were British airline mogul Richard Branson and rock star Peter Gabriel.
All turned with rapt attention as a tall, frail, white-haired man shuffled onstage with a cane: Nelson Mandela.
Soon all the leaders, as well as scores of journalists, joined in a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" to mark Mandela's eighty-ninth year. Characteristically, Mandela used the occasion to unveil an innovative group called the Elders, which pledged to work to solve the world's most intractable problems.
Speaking in a soft voice, Mandela described his vision of what the group should do.
"Together we will work to support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict, and inspire hope where there is despair," Mandela said.
The stirring words were made all the more poignant by the sight of the fragile Mandela, sporting one of the brightly patterned shirts that have become his hallmark.
"I am trying to take my retirement seriously," he joked, "therefore, I will not be able to participate in the really exciting part of the work: analyzing problems and seeking answers, trying to shed light into some of the darkness that afflicts our world."
As applause greeted his short speech, he walked from the podium with difficulty and sat down slowly, assisted by his wife, Graça Machel, and Carter.
To see Mandela alert and engaged but feeble is to come to the inescapable realization that he is nearing the end of his life. International news agencies are keenly aware of Mandela's mortality. Television networks have prepared tributes, hired expert commentators, and set up satellite dishes atop Johannesburg skyscrapers to broadcast the news when Mandela dies.
His life is the stuff of legend.
The journey from rural South Africa to Johannesburg.
The defiant anti-apartheid lawyer who launched the ANC's armed, but principled, struggle against racial discrimination.
The stirring speaker whose words inspired a nation.
The man imprisoned for twenty-seven years who was such a threat to apartheid that even his image and his words were banned.
The icon who emerged from prison without bitterness and who astutely negotiated to bring his country to democracy and led the way in forgiveness and reconciliation.
The esteemed statesman who spoke out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Just by stepping down as president after one five-year term in 1999, Mandela made a huge impact on South African history demonstrating that a leader should not seek to stay in the top office as long as possible.
Four years ago, on his eighty-fifth birthday, Mandela warned his successor, Thabo Mbeki, against seeking to change South Africa's constitution in order to be able to run for president for a third term. Mandela's words alone were enough to end rampant speculation from Mbeki's supporters that the president should extend his time in office.
Mandela has also implicitly rebuked Mbeki's confusing policies on AIDS with several high-profile statements, including the admission that his eldest son, Makgatho, died of AIDS in January 2005. Typically, Mandela turned his personal grief into a public education message.
"Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because that is the only way to make it appear like a normal illness," said Mandela at the burial.
It is a crucial message in South Africa as more than five million of the country's forty-five million people are estimated to be infected with HIV.
Mandela sponsored star-studded rock concerts in Cape Town in 2003 and 2005 to raise awareness and money for his anti-AIDS campaign.
Three years ago, Mandela announced his retirement from public life, a step necessary because of his declining strength. But he continues to exercise impressive authority through carefully timed appearances.
With projects such as the Elders and an annual lecture series, Mandela has sought to extend his support of liberal values, tolerance, dialogue, and peace beyond his lifetime.
He established the well-funded and staffed Nelson Mandela Foundation, which is dedicated to the principles of reconciliation, rule of law, and human rights. The foundation has promoted several projects to encourage all South Africans to understand the history of the anti-apartheid struggle.
One of these projects is a series of comic books dramatizing Mandela's life. With a print run of one million, and distributed free through schools and newspapers, the comics reach out to South Africa's poor youth. They use his compelling life story to tell the history of the anti-apartheid struggle and the humanist values which Mandela seeks to perpetuate.
"In South Africa, Mandela achieved not just a solution for the black majority, but a solution for all South Africans," says Achmat Dangor, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. "He reached out to all. And that is Mandela's personal vision, to encourage generosity, tolerance, and reconciliation. We want people to appreciate that Mandela sacrificed his freedom for the principle of freedom for all. He turned to confrontation as a last resort and, most importantly, he knew how to set aside confrontation to bring all sides to the negotiating table to find a resolution. He found the generosity to speak with his oppressors. He forgave an implacable enemy."
These days, Mandela is spending more time with his family. He has three surviving daughters, one from his first marriage and two from his second marriage to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Mandela's first wife, Evelyn, died in 2004.
"He sees it as making up for when he neglected his family, during his activism and the twenty-seven years in prison," says Dangor.
In these later years, Mandela has found happiness with his third wife, Graça, whom he married on his eightieth birthday in 1998. She is the widow of Mozambique's first president, Samora Machel, who died in a suspicious plane crash at the South African border in 1986. Last year, Mandela supported calls for a new inquest into Machel's death.
Another important, sustaining relationship for Mandela is with Zelda la Grange, the white, Afrikaner typist who became his secretary when he was president and who stayed with him after retirement to become his spokesperson. The image of Mandela leaning heavily on la Grange as he walks has touched South Africa, an example of the racial reconciliation and love to which the leader has dedicated his life.
Andrew Meldrum is the author of "Where We Have Hope," a memoir of his twenty-three years as a journalist in Zimbabwe. He is currently a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.
Photo: Wikimedia commons.