Nelson Mandela: “one of most influential, courageous and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth” (President Barack Obama). Photo: Contributed
The death of Nelson Mandela did not come unexpectedly, but nevertheless it sent a shiver throughout the world.
For many of us who had met him, but also for countless millions of people who only knew his voice and inimitable smile, he represented the type of political leadership we long for: steadfast, warm, truly humane, dignified, reconciliatory, ready to sacrifice, humorous. And he communicated by words and deeds: a remarkable gift of God.
I met him in the early 1960s just before he was arrested and sentenced to life-long imprisonment: a man in his forties, forceful but also witty. With trepidation I followed a trial trumped up to silence his voice and I can still hear his "last words" in which he testified that he lived for a South Africa with freedom and equality for all. And that he was ready to die for his conviction if necessary.
During all the years he spent on the infamous Robben Island, we sent him encouraging postcards at Easter, many of them thrown away by the prison guards with the rest of his mail. The story of his behaviour in prison was like a fairy tale: a man condemned to die in prison, encouraging his often illiterate guards to read and write. And always teaching and discussing the need for a free and hateless society "when the time came".
No wonder that when he majestically walked out of prison on that unforgettable Sunday afternoon in 1990, many of us wept in front of our TV sets. After the landslide victory of his African National Congress in 1994 - I was an observer for the elections - we celebrated the results in an unforgettable party where Nelson danced with Martin Luther King's widow Coretta. What a sight!
Now he is free at last. He leaves us with an icon of good government and a political example worth our best efforts to have it remembered and followed.
His picture shall always sit on my desk next to those of Gandhi, John the XXIII, and Martin Luther King. It is a great privilege to be alive during his lifetime.
Albert van den Heuvel, former President of the World Association for Christian Communication (1996-2004).