Field Notes

Mandela tried to teach that we all have greatness within us

It was a late spring day in 1994 and New York could not have been more beautiful.

The area around the United Nations was basking under a blue sky; any clouds that might have thought of approaching seemingly chased away by the ebullient spirit filling the area.

It was Election Day for South Africa and scores of South African voters who were living in the United States were there to vote.

As I watched – I was there covering the historic event for The New York Post – it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by what was happening. People of all ages, almost all of them of them Black, almost all of them convinced until that moment that they would never get to vote in their lifetime.
 

One by one they would approach the polling place.

Some would walk, some would strut, some would literally dance their way to the booth. There were people in jeans, people in colorful tribal garb, people in suits, people of all ages.  There was a huge range of emotions from people whose smiles could have powered the city to people whom you wondered how they could see through their tears.

People were laughing, they were signing. And when they were done voting, few wanted to leave. They wanted to stay for their countrymen and cheer them on.

It’s almost hard to explain now.

There are so many people – even in the newsroom where I work – who may have been alive when Nelson Mandela was released from prison but were too young to fully appreciate what was going on at the time.

There are many for whom Mandela’s imprisonment, release from prison and election as his country’s first Black president are things that they learned about in a history book in middle school.

It’s hard for them to imagine a world where Mandela – and millions of people – were not allowed to vote.

Here’s something even more mind-blowing: it was illegal in South Africa to have a picture of Nelson Mandela in your home.

Try imagining that in today’s world where Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and so many other apps and websites make sure that we cannot escape images.

For so many years, people had protested the South African regime; its policy of Apartheid. Across the world, “divestiture” seemingly became the word on everyone’s lips as streets would fill with people demanding companies, universities, governments stop doing business with South Africa.

And then world turned on its head.

One day in 1990, South African President FW de Klerk announced Mandela would be set free,

Watching him being released from prison all I could think was that anything was possible. If de Klerk could release Mandela, if Mandela would walk the streets a free man, what wasn’t possible?

And every week, he seemed more remarkable.

From gushing about how honored he felt that Muhammad Ali had paid attention to his plight to again and again making it clear that he was not looking for revenge, he was filled with forgiveness. He urged people to avoid violence, to work together to rebuild their country.

He was a unifier who seemed to refuse accolades.

And there were so many. People compared him to Gandhi and Jesus.

Mandela apparently would have none of it. When people would tell him he was a saint, he would say he’s not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.

When he became the country’s first freely elected president, he used his term to spur unification. And it didn’t take him long to make clear that he would stay for one term and then make way for someone else.

And that’s what he did.

Mandela was a larger than life figure who wanted people to see him as just a person. I guess the lesson there was that within all of us lies the ability to be great, to change the world.

We may have lost Mandela on Thursday. I'm hoping the lessons he tried to teach were not lost woth him.