How Mandela Kept His Enemies Close

The South African president and liberation icon defined magnanimity and grace.

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These gestures of reconciliation had defined his presidency. He lunched with Percy Yutar, the prosecutor in the 1963 conspiracy case that resulted in a life sentence for Mandela. He took tea with Betsy Verwoerd, widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the architects of apartheid.

He'd even developed amiable relations with a right-wing general, Constand Viljoen, who tried to mount a rebellion to disrupt the historic 1994 election. And when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, Mandela hailed the team in that Afrikaner sporting bastion by wearing the jersey of its captain.

His indefatigable push for reconciliation became the glue that held the fractious country together during a transition that could have descended into civil war. He wasn't alone in this outreach, but his effort, as president, was perhaps most important of all. Mandela had made it his mission to ensure that all South Africans knew they were welcome in the new democracy. History required him to take up this cause.

Reconciliation and bridge building were the most important arrows in his quiver as president. That was Mandela's mission. Whether he wanted to reconcile or not is immaterial, though I spent far too much time back then trying to divine an answer. I realized, though, that the personal and the political were one with Mandela. His intellectual and moral core was completely focused on furthering his crusade to unite and stabilize South Africa.

Mandela knew that generosity of spirit was a strategic necessity, and so he became generous of spirit to woo his former enemies because they were, under his presidency, the enemy within. He'd inherited the apartheid-era military and civil service as part of the negotiated settlement, which protected public service employees of the old regime. The storm troopers of apartheid, filled with misgivings or downright hostility toward black rule, would not be purged.

Alas, Mandela's people ran the nation's politics, but they did not run the military. Black magnanimity was an imperative, though that didn't mean Mandela did not, from time to time, castigate whites for clinging to privilege or obstructing progress for the vast ocean of South Africa's black and brown poor. 

The nation's racial politics were oh so freighted, so tense. And I could literally feel that tension beginning to crackle there in the hospital hallway outside Mrs. Visagie's suite, where some of her friends had begun to gather as the silhouetted drama continued. She wagged her finger in Mandela's face. She flailed her arms.

I could understand how upset and frightened she must have been, but she was way out of line! And I wasn't the only one to think so. There in the hallway, I could hear the quiet deliberations of others who were debating the merits of Mrs. Visagie's desire to release a statement blaming her husband's ambush on the lifting of the death penalty by Mandela's government.

Some in the crowd saw the fingerprints of the Great Crocodile on this idea. I heard one anguished voice say, "If P.W. wants to send a political message, he mustn't do it under these circumstances."

Soon, Mandela emerged. He looked even more tired than when he'd arrived. He made a brief, pro forma statement to the press outside the hospital, hoping for the recovery of the stricken officer. His mood seemed dour as we headed back to the airport for the return flight to Johannesburg.