Thank You, Nelson Mandela

Since Nelson Mandela passed away last Thursday I have been mesmerized by pictures of him, soaking in gallery after gallery of photographs of his remarkable life. Growing up in South Africa in the 1970s and '80s, images of Mandela were banned and the apartheid government made it illegal to publish any of his words. The few pictures I did see were grainy or a censor's black bar was pasted across Mandela's face. He was a man of mystery.

One of my first jobs in journalism was covering the education beat for The Star, which was then South Africa's biggest daily newspaper. It was a tumultuous time in the mid-1980s and the government imposed a draconian state of emergency in an attempt to quell what was euphemistically called "unrest." Despite the real risk of detention without trial, there were demonstrations across the country, black children boycotted school and tried to dodge police with dogs, bullets and teargas. Even though he was in prison, Mandela was a constant presence at these protests, from the chants of "Viva Mandela, Viva" to the songs that demanded his release.

At that time, international pressure was at a crescendo for Mandela to be freed, particularly as he suffered from various health problems. In fact, Mandela rejected an earlier offer of release after then President P.W. Botha attached conditions to his freedom.

As you can imagine, there was intense competition to get the first picture of Madiba, the clan name by which he is affectionately known in South Africa. A French photographer I knew attached a camera on a remote control helicopter and tried to capture a shot when Mandela was exercising in the grounds of a hospital where he was recovering from tuberculosis. The photographer befriended a nurse who gave him the times Mandela usually went for a stroll. The intricate plan never worked, of course, despite the many nights my photographer friend spent hiding in dense bushes outside the medical clinic.

A day before his release, the South African government reversed its policy and published a picture of Mandela. President F.W. de Klerk, who I had interviewed when he was the education minister, also shocked everyone when he lifted a 30-year ban on Mandela's African National Congress. In the picture the government released, Mandela was wearing a suit and tie and his hair had gone a distinguished gray. There is no way to overstate the excitement of that day on February 11, 1990 when Mandela walked free after 27 years in prison. Not even the grating commentary by a reporter from the South African Broadcasting Corporation -- who kept repeating what a beautiful prison setting it was -- could diminish that sense of anticipation.

When he finally emerged from the Victor Verster Prison in the rural winelands, punching his fist in the air and holding hands with his then wife Winnie, the world was transfixed. Mandela was taller than I expected and had an elegant gait, walking in a measured way, his back ramrod straight. So much had changed since he was incarcerated but he seemed to literally be taking it in his stride. His first words, in a strong, commanding voice, to a crowd later that day in Cape Town, were met with thunderous applause.

"Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom," said Mandela, who became South Africa's first democratically elected president in 1994. "I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people."

The next day, Mandela himself admitted he had been completely overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of his welcome and was particularly surprised that whites had come out to greet him. "It was breathtaking," he said at his first international news conference at Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu's home.

I joined tens of thousands of supporters in the Orlando soccer stadium in Soweto where a homecoming rally was held for Mandela on February 13, 1990. The atmosphere was electric and the anticipation is impossible to describe as we waited for him to arrive. The stadium was packed to capacity. Kids, who were born long after Mandela was sentenced to life, ran through the press area clambering over the hundreds of journalists who had come in from across the world to witness the historic day. There was a sense of jubilation and of hope. When Mandela said: "We are going forward, a march towards freedom and justice is irreversible," the crowd roared. He also appealed for discipline, telling children to go back to school and for an end to mindless violence.

A few years later, I was based in Brussels for Reuters and attended a lunch where Mandela was being honored. I shook his hand and was struck by the warmth and humor in his eyes. During a reporting trip I made to South Africa in 2009, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Mandela. At 91, he was frail and no media were allowed in with Clinton. Afterwards, Clinton said she had been honored to look through some of the archives of Mandela's life, including personal photos of his youth. He had, said Clinton, a "treasure trove" of lessons for future generations.

I've spoken to my own children a lot about Nelson Mandela's legacy and how he saved South Africa from more unspeakable horrors. At my son's school a few years ago, I spoke to his class about what it was like living and reporting in South Africa during the apartheid years. I intentionally moderated my comments for a pre-teen audience, glossing over some of the more disturbing details of that era. At the end of the discussion a girl put up her hand and asked whether I thought such racism could ever exist again. I told her that what made South Africa's form of racism so terrible was that it was underpinned and made "legal" by a group of immoral laws. We had to make sure that would never happen again and the onus was on us to follow Mandela's example.

On the day Nelson Mandela died, like millions of other people around the world, my 14-year-old updated his Facebook page with a picture of Mandela and the following status update.

"Nelson Mandela, thank you. I am truly inspired by your courage, your forgiveness and your perseverance in the best interest of all people on this earth. Even though South Africa has lost one its greatest sons, his contributions and legacy will never be forgotten."

From a grateful mother: thank you and RIP Tata Madiba.