The worldwide tributes to Nelson Mandela justly portrayed him as a transcendent hero, the liberator of his country, a man who grew to renounce violence and embrace peace and reconciliation, and a true embodiment of the indomitable nature of the human spirit. A second wave held him as great but imperfect. And scattered voices spoke of what they perceived to be his profound failings.
In my reading of the Mandela literature, I think he would have smiled at the totality of those views. A man who disavowed hate because it clouded the mind, he famously searched for the good in others when only bad was apparent. No one thing is true, he maintained. It’s all true. In one of his humorous, self-deprecating asides that was making the rounds in Friday’s obituaries, he insisted once that he wasn’t a saint, unless a saint was a sinner looking to improve.
That made me smile. And it made me remember a day when Mandela came to America, just months after being released from prison in 1990 after serving 27 years of a life sentence. At the end of an eight city U.S. tour, he came to Oakland, Calif., where he would speak at the Oakland Coliseum. My sons were 14 and 11 that year, visiting me in California for the summer, and I told them that we had to go.
On the drive down from Sacramento, where I was writing a column for the Bee newspaper, I told them about the epic nature of Mandela’s struggle, of his remarkable courage and perseverance, of his amazing equanimity in the face of hatred and injustice, of his ability to not only to think and act in terms of the long run, but his grit and grace in seeing the long run realized. You will be able to say that you saw Mandela in America, I promised them. This is a day you’ll always remember.
I think there were some 58,000 of us in the Coliseum that day. The mood was festive, celebratory. I remember it as being lightly overcast as the fog receded, giving way to vapory sunlight. There were songs, political speeches, a building excitement. And then Mandela and his entourage took the stage. There was a thunderous crescendo from the crowd, then another.
And then he began, “On my release from jail last Feb. 11, we walked out of the prison gate to a tumultuous and joyous welcome. Our people in their multitudes had come from all corners of South Africa to receive us back into our ways of struggle. The heavens rained with their chants of joy. It was a joy obviously shared in America, and most particularly, this day, in Oakland.”
The crowd erupted again and again.
“We are at a crucial historical juncture,” Mandela called. “We cannot turn back. We shall not turn back!”
It all passed quickly. Mandela said he felt like an old battery that had been recharged. The bonds of time, the shackles of 27 years in prison, had been lifted from his body by the overwhelming response to his cause he had found in America.
On the way to the car, I was telling the boys that here is a man who has withstood a regime that represents systematic repression and brutal plunder of his people. He has not only survived it, he has lifted himself above it. And even beyond the politics of the situation, here is a man who has looked within himself and found the courage at great personal sacrifice to stand up for what is right. So simple. So profoundly difficult.
I hugged my boys tight. Something very important had passed between us.