I sat there, day after day, week after week, listening to the ways and means of South African terror. How white security forces hacked, shot, burned, poisoned and blew up anti-apartheid activists. How they killed children and bombed churches and received congratulations from their superiors. How they battered Steve Biko to death and dismembered and barbecued a quartet of activists, known in death as the Cradock 4.
How they kept someone's hand in a jar back at police headquarters to remind uncooperative detainees of their likely fate. And even journalists wept that day in 1996 as the widow of one of those Cradock men begged the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to help her recover all that was left of her late husband: that missing hand, the one in the jar.
Multiply the pain by the scores of thousands. Amplify it to every region, every township, every family. It was a soul-crushing kind of devastation for a people to bear, the kind that could spark the most base of human instincts. And yet, there came Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, the new president of a Democratic South Africa, brilliantly appealing to the higher selves of his people and leading them toward reconciliation rather than revenge, toward forgiveness rather than the fires of civil war.
On the occasion of Mandela's 90th birthday (July 18th), let us remember his genius. Let us put aside, for the moment, the pop-culture iconography—the concerts, the celebrity hangers-on—and let's talk instead about the man and his mission.
He had endured 27 years of tortuous imprisonment while his family—especially his wife, Winnie—was persecuted in his absence. And yet in 1990 he emerged dignified and visionary, a man fully aware of his role, his power. Parts of the country were engulfed in apartheid-inspired violence. More bloodshed seemed inevitable. To stave off the chaos and secure the country's future, Mandela and his African National Congress negotiated with the last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk, and apartheid died at the ballot box in 1994 when Mandela won the presidency and launched his push for unity, for healing.
"I saw my mission as one of preaching reconciliation, of binding the wounds of the country, of engendering trust and confidence," he wrote in Long Walk to Freedom, his 1994 memoir. Then later, in Mandela, the Authorized Biography, he told author Anthony Sampson, "Courageous people do not fear forgiving for the sake of peace."
So he reached out to his former enemies, including the widow of a former apartheid president and the prosecutor who helped send him to prison for life. Some in his own movement thought Mandela was going too far, taking forgiveness to the extreme. But Mandela saw strength in forgiveness. He also saw the strategic necessity of it, considering that his military wasn't really his at all, but still was dominated by apartheid-era troops, those restive Afrikaners who were the descendants of South Africa's early white settlers.
And he was masterful in making public gestures to hammer home his conciliatory mission. Who would ever have imagined the scene when South Africa won the 1995 Rugby World Cup, and Mandela strode onto the field at Ellis Park Stadium wearing the jersey of the team captain. In a spectacularly powerful moment of symbolism, the throng of Afrikaners chanted, "Nelson! Nelson! Nelson!"—though Afrikaners at that time weren't fully embracing black rule and often wouldn't even sing the new national anthem.
Yes, Mandela would forgive. But he would not forget. His political agenda was crafted as corrective for all the damage the Afrikaners had done under apartheid. He had to transform an economy that had once served only whites; uplift the black poor; rewrite the legal canon; bring some human rights to a people who had for so long been denied. And the truth commission, under Archbishop Desmond Tutu, would tend to the healing, the forgiveness.
He was often called the "father of the nation," though he rejected the notion that he was a kind of messiah. But in the townships and shanties, where life was bitter but dreams were sustenance, people revered him and hung on his every word. So many times, ordinary people would tell me, sometimes using Mandela's affectionate clan name: Madiba says we must forgive, so I must try.
In their leaky shacks where rocks held down the rooftops against swirling winds, they trusted in their president as they waited for electricity, paved roads, proper houses, jobs. "He is our father," one woman said to me when I asked what Mandela meant to her. And she said it softly, like a prayer.
It is, of course, a long work. South Africa is still evolving, still grappling with reconciliation and a host of other pressures. And Mandela, as he turns 90, still preaches his gospel of strength in reconciliation, of courage in forgiveness.
Just the other day in Soweto, in praising President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf for her post-war leadership of Liberia, Mandela told her: "It is so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build."
Happy Birthday, Madiba. Thank you for always reminding us of our higher selves.
Lynne Duke was The Washington Post's bureau chief in Johannesburg from 1995 to 1999. She is author of the 2003 memoir "Mandela, Mobutu and Me: A Newswoman's African Journey."