Nelson Mandela: The Measure of the Man

Nelson Mandela, Mary Braxton Joseph and Ambassador Joseph

I first met Nelson Mandela in Washington, D.C. in June 1990 where I shared the dais with him on his first visit to the United States. In February of that year I had been in quite a different place: standing outside of Parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, holding a "Free Mandela" sign when then-President F.W. de Klerk announced that Mandela would be set free and the liberation groups unbanned.

In 1996, I was back in South Africa to present my credentials to President Mandela as the U.S. Ambassador. "I have come to exchange my 'free Mandela' sign for my credentials as the United States Ambassador," I said. He loved it.

Over the last week, like many others I have sought to take full measure of the man. I have concluded that three things about him should be at the center of how he is remembered:

1. What he taught us about the power of the human spirit. After 27 years of incarceration for his struggle to abolish apartheid, he walked out of the prison gates with his head held high and with his dignity, humanity and integrity still intact. It was a time when the projection of state power beyond its borders had become the domain largely of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger called the warrior caste. But Mandela influenced events and shaped opinions far beyond South Africa's borders because of who he was rather than because of the power and influence of his country. Long before the notion of soft power had become a part of the American discourse about the relationship between nation states, Mandela was warning that if we do not solve problems through the use of our brains we may be destined to try to solve them through the use of our blood.

2. What he taught us about effective leadership. He was a politician who made the profession seem noble, a transformational leader who called us to a higher purpose and sought to appeal to our better nature. But he was also a transactional leader and a great negotiator who knew when and how to compromise on strategy. His attractiveness and influence came from the power of his personality, the elegance of his humanity, the wisdom of his judgment, the loftiness of his ideals, the calmness of his temperament and the power of his personal story. He was in prison while the world economy was becoming more interdependent. He was in prison while we were developing the Internet. He was in prison while we were becoming addicted to the cell phone. He was in prison while we were becoming seduced by the notion that experience trumps wisdom and judgment. But he came out of prison, took over the leadership of his party and his country and never missed a beat, because for him leadership was a way of being. His influence was grounded in something deeper than the power of position.

3. What he taught us about the genesis of community and the healing of a divided people. He was the product of a cultural tradition best described by the African proverb "People are people through other people." And so what sustained him was not the Western notion of "I think, therefore I am," but the tribal notion of "I am because you are; to diminish your humanity is to diminish my own; to deny your dignity is to deny my own." We remember him then as one who sought to demonstrate that diversity need not divide, that pluralism rightly understood and rightly practiced is a benefit and not a burden, and that the fear of difference is a fear of the future. We remember him also as a very spiritual and humble man who in a letter from prison to his wife, Winnie, wrote that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying.

Sitting in the pew at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington this week with many of the veterans of the anti-apartheid movement, I felt pleased to have been a part of more than fifty years of the struggle to free South Africa. Yet, while South Africa has changed and the world is in some ways a better place because of Nelson Mandela, the long journey is not completed. The best tribute we can offer to him is to pick up the torch and carry on.