ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Publication Date : 09-12-2013
Unexpected but entirely fitting: It was during a visit in 1997 to the Philippines—a country known for its people’s sense of fatalism and obsessed with radio dramas and telenovelas, with their larger-than-life version of romance—that the liberator of South Africa showed the world he was once again in love.
Nelson Mandela, the first black president of a united South Africa, had arrived with a new companion: Graça Machel, the widow of Mozambique’s first president. Asked by journalist Ellen Tordesillas whether wedding bells were again in his future, Mandela elegantly parried the question. Editor Juliet Javellana recalls his answer: “Well, my cultural background does not permit me to answer this question with people young enough to be my children or grandchildren.”
But he introduced Machel to President Fidel Ramos and other government officials as his companion, and the two were even photographed holding hands. The public loved it. (Divorced from his second wife in 1996, Mandela married Machel in 1998, over a year after the Manila visit.)
This seems like a trivial note to remember a genuine hero by, whose death on December 5 at the age of 95 the entire world is mourning. But in fact this story vividly illustrates Mandela’s hold on the global imagination. He was a revolutionary leader and a long-time prisoner of conscience; unseen in public for close to three decades, he emerged in 1990, upon his release, a youthful-looking 71-year-old, radiating power and confidence. His years in prison had not broken him; indeed, they had made him stronger, not only in the political but also in the physical sense.
It soon became clear where the source of that strength lay: In his decision, his conscious and deliberate effort, not to bear rancour or resentment against his jailers and the brutal apartheid government they worked for. “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom,” he famously recalled, “I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.”
He truly did not bear ill will against his jailers or the white supremacists who used to rule his country. At his presidential inauguration in 1994, for instance, his jail warden was one of the honoured guests. With unusual humility, he continued his programme of reconciliation during his presidency, in support of a truly inclusive nation.
That is why, when the world first glimpsed Mandela holding hands with a new lady love, it approved. Falling in love again seemed all of a piece with, seemed just the right thing for, an inspirational icon of reconciliation.