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How Mandela Kept His Enemies Close

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

Nelson Mandela in Cape Town, South Africa, April 2009

Chris Jackson/Getty Images

As a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Lynne Duke, who died April 19, 2013, at the age of 56, covered the late Nelson Mandela's release from prison in 1990 and his presidency. Her experiences as a journalist covering the transformative time in South Africa as well as the region at large are chronicled in her 2003 memoir, Mandela, Mobutu and Me: A Newswoman's African Journey. Parts of the following essay, which she wrote for The Root in 2011 but is being published now for the first time, were condensed from her memoir. The Root is honored to share this first-person account from a writer who witnessed Mandela's presidency up close.

Behind the miniblinds inside a private suite at a Cape Town hospital, lamplight cast President Nelson Mandela's figure in silhouette. He was seated. And amazingly, outrageously, the woman he had gone to meet that February evening in 1999 paced in front of him, gesturing angrily in his face.

Rozanne Visagie was beside herself, and for good reason. Her husband, Schalk Visagie, a senior police anti-terrorism official, had just been rushed to the hospital after being shot in a highway ambush.

That day Mandela remained unrattled, even magnanimous, in the face of her anger.

I was traveling with Mandela as part of my coverage as the Johannesburg bureau chief for the Washington Post. After puddle jumping between four small towns in the Western Cape Province, where Mandela gave several speeches on national hope and racial unity, we'd just boarded the presidential jet for the flight back to Jo'burg, when Mandela learned of Visagie's ambush and dire prognosis.

"I must go to the hospital to see him," he told his secretary. It seemed a routine presidential show of support for a fallen man in uniform.   

But Mrs. Visagie, I soon learned, wasn't just any wife of a cop. She was the daughter of P.W. Botha, the "Great Crocodile"—the snarling embodiment of death and destruction in the apartheid era of white minority rule. Botha was Mandela's jailer. Botha considered Mandela a terrorist.

Even after Mandela became the first democratically elected president in 1994, Botha thumbed his nose at Mandela's attempts to cajole him to speak voluntarily before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela felt that Botha's participation would have been important for national healing. But Botha refused. He was hauled into court in 1998 for contempt for ignoring a commission subpoena.

There was no love lost between Mandela and Botha. But precisely because of that fraught history, Mandela found it imperative to show his support in a crisis such as the shooting of Visagie. As I watched the silhouette scene unfolding, I realized that I was witnessing Mandela's famous magnanimity at work.