Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Following Mandela's Example

Like many others, I have been thinking a lot about Nelson Mandela in recent days, especially today. His words, actions and restraint are so worthy of admiration.

As a teenager, I remember being fascinated by Mandela, but it wasn’t until I interviewed Johnny Clegg, the (white) leader of apartheid-era South Africa’s first interracial band, that I gained a greater understanding and appreciation of Mandela and his country. (I recall that my article on Clegg was published in The Baltimore Sun on July 18, 1996, Mandela’s 78th birthday). 

Getting to South Africa became a goal of mine, and seven years later, when I was living in Argentina, I made it happen. I relied heavily on the advice of my colleague and friend Jon Jeter who had recently become The Washington Post's South America correspondent after four years as The Post’s Southern Africa correspondent. Jeter’s insights and contacts made sure I was able to see things both on and off the beaten path. Visiting Cape Town and Robben Island, and then Johannesburg and Soweto, were truly life-changing experiences, and I treasure the things I learned and the people I met there.

Later, I befriended South Africa’s ambassador to Argentina, Tony Leon. Despite his role as a vocal opposition party leader during and after Mandela’s presidency, Leon was made a diplomat by the ANC-led government, a move surely inspired by Mandela’s ethos of inclusion. (Interestingly, Leon’s successor in Buenos Aires is Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, Nelson and Winnie’s oldest daughter). Leon (who wrote an intriguing op-ed about Mandela today) 
and the many other South Africans who I have come in contact with over the years have led me to appreciate even more how their country produced such a wise, complex and gracious man. 

The willingness to sacrifice your own self-interest for the greater good seems like such a distant concept these days; let’s hope that Mandela’s passing can remind us all that it is an ideal worth pursuing.