Reflections on Nelson Mandela’s Legacy

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Reflections on Nelson Mandela’s Legacy

As Nelson Mandela was being groomed in 1993 to take power as South Africa's first black president, he toured the Bryntirion, Pretoria, presidential home with his 3-year-old grandson, paying little attention to its grandeur.

"Here was a historical figure going into what had previously been the residence of the ceremonial heads of state of the government with a 3-year-old child, not being impressed with all of this," said Dave Steward, former chief of staff for President F.W. de Klerk, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela that year.

"The real man was holding the hand of his grandson."

Those who knew the legendary figure, whose clan nickname was "Madiba," say that image speaks to Mandela's humility and charm, which was as powerful as his lofty goals for a multiracial South Africa and world peace.

Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, had as many earthly passions as political ones: He was a notorious flirt, a boxer and a lover of ballroom dancing. His aristocratic charm mesmerized celebrities as well as everyday people.

"What you get is what you see," Steward told in 2010. "He's not putting on an act.

"If he was just walking down the street or on the way to go into the Union Building, he would speak to the gardener and express genuine interest in his life," said Steward. "This would cut across all racial divides. He had just as much concern for the flight crew of the presidential aircraft as he would for anybody else.

"It was not an affected charm," said Steward. "He was incredibly thoughtful and considerate in his relationships with the humblest of people around him. He was a great reconciler."

Those who knew him said Mandela's sense of humanity and reconciliation sprang from the sense of duty that was part of his own noble African beginnings, as well as a life beset with hardship, loneliness and betrayal.

"I suspect that from the day that he committed to the struggle against apartheid, he meant genuinely to fully dedicate his entire life to that cause," said a member of the South African parliament and president of the United Democratic Movement.

"Little did he know the price he would pay," he told in 2010. "A free South Africa became synonymous with his name, and that was what the public expected of him."

As a martyr for democratic South Africa, Mandela spent 27 years in prison, cut off from his four children.

Just four months after he was set free from prison in 1990, Nelson Mandela set foot in America for the very first time with an eight-city tour starting in New York. It was magical.

It was as if Malcolm X or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., were still alive, and the Mets had won the World Series, all in New York. All in one day.

The boldness of his vision humbled the powerful in America.

"I said, 'Didn't you hate those people even when they let you go?' recalled former president Bill Clinton. "He said, 'Briefly, I did. But when I was walking out of my compound for the last time, I said to myself, they've had you 27 years, if you hate them when you get through that door, they will still have you.'"

And the famous.

"If you can proceed through life with just a portion of Nelson Mandela's humility, you will be a huge success," said Oprah Winfrey.

But that iconic image has been "somewhat twisted by time," said "Mandela" researcher Sanders. "He is really a human being with a lot of faults. He was always incredibly insistent that we not paint him as a saint.

"He's not a mythical figure," he said. "And I know that sounds odd, but one byproduct of racism is to create icons that are incredibly good or evil. He gets that 10 times over."

Although not particularly intellectual, Mandela was a "politician to his fingertips," Sanders said.

"He had enormous energy poured into him -- black liberation and white reconciliation or the global need for some progressive figure of good," he said. "And he didn't want to let them down."

Mandela's imprisonment, especially, shaped his view of the world and his ability to be a reconciler, said James Sanders, researcher for the biography, "Mandela." "The only way you can survive is to go by a set of parameters of what is given," he said.

Still, Mandela gives South Africa, which continues to be challenged by poverty, the highest rate of AIDS in the world and lingering racism, the opportunity to "feel good about themselves," he said.

"He was a contested figure and he urges contestation of who is," Sanders said. "He tried to use his influence and power and the experience that gave him to positive ends and he was marvelous at that."

And to his fellow South Africans, many of whom fled to the United States during the apartheid years, Mandela is a symbol of determination.

"The most fascinating thing about him is he kept his eye on the prize," said Dr. Wulf Utian, a consultant in women's health, who left South Africa 33 years ago.

"He was focused and never allowed hate or bitterness or political factions or even pressure from different groups within the ANC to take away his clear thinking toward a multi-racial country."