James Ferguson makes his biggest point about Nelson Mandela by going small.
Mandela, 95, died Thursday. Ferguson, the Charlotte attorney, recalls a private meeting with the South African leader not long after he took the reins of the racially divided country in 1994. Ferguson’s group included several friends, and one of them brought along his son, a 7-year-old named Winston.
With the adults, Mandela was warm and engaging. With Winston ... well, Ferguson estimates the conversation between Mandela and boy rolled on for 15 minutes.
“He enjoyed the 7-year-old much more than anybody in the room,” Ferguson said, laughing. “Nelson Mandela was so human. He never called attention to himself or gave you the feeling that anything he said was more important than anybody else.
“Here was someone who was already almost legendary, who had such stature for the entire world. And yet to be so unassuming, with us, and with a child.”
It was this humanity, which endeared the former revolutionary to an entire planet, that also helped him salvage a country, according to a half dozen Charlotteans with ties to South Africa.
For more than 50 years, the country had operated under “apartheid,” a system of racial segregation as brutal as anything seen in the Old South. Today, and largely because of the tone of racial reconciliation that Mandela helped set, South Africa remains the most stable country in post-liberation Africa.
“The jewel in his crown is the way he enabled two extreme points of view to come together, literally sitting down at a table, and hash out how to have peace,” says Dianne Stewart, a public relations executive who came to Charlotte in 2001 and who says she served as a volunteer media liaison during the South African peace talks.
“The outside world saw him as an international statesman, a figurehead, a Martin Luther King. But South Africans viewed him as one of us. He was revered and adored and given an incredible amount of respect because of his humbleness and quiet wisdom. People behaved around him. It was like being around the pope. You don’t misbehave around the pope.”
A tradition of forgiveness
At play during South Africa’s peaceful transition of power, Ferguson believes, was the South African tribal notion of ubuntu.
Ferguson, who traveled frequently to the country for about 15 years to help train young black lawyers, says he first heard the term from Desmond Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop of Johannesburg and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
“Ubuntu is more than forgiveness, more than nonviolence,” said Ferguson, struggling for a precise definition. “There’s a transformative component to it that allowed … South Africans to rise above bitterness and to bring about change without having any need to destroy.”
Mandala, Ferguson believes, embodied ubuntu. That made him the only man on earth who could have united his country nonviolently – “when all the ingredients of violent transition” were in place.
The Rev. Clifford Jones, pastor of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, said South Africa remains a country with deep-rooted poverty and problems. But he says Mandela gave it a future.
“I believe volumes will be written, and I’m still not sure they will capture the magnitude of Mr. Mandela’s influence on changing the face of not only South Africa but Africa, too,” said Jones, who has made about a dozen trips to the country.
“Not to sequester things for his own personal wealth. Not to enter that position of power with a vendetta or vindictiveness. And he stayed in touch with the ordinary. He never lost the common touch.”
As much as any other South African political leader, Mandela had cause for retaliation. As one of the heads of the African National Congress that eventually took up arms against South Africa’s apartheid government, Mandela was branded a communist and a revolutionary and eventually imprisoned for 27 years.
He was released in 1990, then elected president four years later to help direct the transfer of power from a minority white population uncertain of what awaited to a black majority clamoring for the benefits of reform.
‘Good of the people’
Growing up in the South African coastal town of Durban, Catherine Anderson said she had never heard of Mandela until she reached her 30s. After being “banned” and imprisoned by the government, Mandela’s name couldn’t appear in the country’s newspapers or on television.
Anderson, now a Charlotte photographer, artist and author, said the late leader “always overcame his circumstances to do what he wanted to do.” That included the poverty of his early life, government persecution and prison, even any impulse for vengeance against his former white oppressors.
“In one sense, he was able to overcome the physical and the practical. The other involved a more emotional and spiritual way of looking at the world,” Anderson said. “In the end, he always placed the good of the people before his own good. That’s the mark of not just a leader. That’s something very few people can do.”
Johnson C. Smith University President Ron Carter was in the audience when Mandela, shortly after his release from prison, met with many of his country’s white business and political elites. Carter, who spent 10 years in the country working in higher education, and community and leadership development, said the white leaders didn’t know what to expect from Mandela, and they wore looks of disbelief that they had to sit down with a black man and listen to what he had to say.
Mandela, according to Carter, tried to ease tension by sipping on a beer. He told the group he hadn’t had one for quite some time. The conversation went on for hours, Carter recalled, and by the end of the meeting the entire energy of the room had changed.
Graham: ‘Apartheid is sin’
Anderson and her family settled in Charlotte in 1997, almost two decades after the arrival of a small wave of South Africans, who left their country amid the growing violence, most notably the riots of 1976 in the black township of Soweto.
By then, Charlotteans had already made their mark on the country.
In 1973, evangelist and Charlotte native Billy Graham broke his 20-year boycott and preached before an integrated crowd of 60,000 in Johannesburg. He had given notice that he would speak his mind about the country’s racial policies.
When questioned by South African reporters, Graham said in a later interview, “I looked right into their cameras and told them apartheid is sin. This will bring an explosion in the future, and you better start preparing for it now.”
After living here for a decade, Stewart believes that with the help of Mandela and his early “Truth and Reconciliation” hearings, her native country has surpassed Charlotte and the rest of the South in its willingness to face difficult but constructive conversations about race.
A shared birthday
Mandela turned 95 on July 18. He was 72 when he walked out of Verster Prison.
“The sadness for me is that he came out of prison too late,” Stewart said. “He was too old. He was frail.” Had he been a younger man, “Our country would have gone ahead much quicker, and he would have had the energy to manage, execute and lead.”
Anderson takes a different approach. She wonders if prison “might have turned him into the person who was able to forgive. Maybe that’s what made him realize that the only way South Africa would survive was with a reconciliation approach rather than a retaliatory one.”
Jones, the pastor of Friendship Missionary Church, said the promise of Mandela’s reforms have only been partially met. Crime and public safety is a concern throughout South Africa. Disparities in wealth – “economic apartheid,” Jones calls it – remain vast. And the balancing act between the country’s major cultures stays delicate and potentially explosive.
“Change is inevitable. It will be too rapid for some and too slow for others,” Jones said. “There is still work to be done. But Mr. Mandela built the foundation for a bridge for all those things he talked about to happen. It’s up to his successors and subsequent generations to complete the bridge.”
In 1994, Stewart gave birth to her son, Michael, in a Johannesburg hospital. The date was July 18, Mandela’s birthday, and the country’s new president was in a room upstairs, recovering from surgery to repair the damage to his eyes caused when he was forced by his captors to work in a lime quarry without protective sunglasses.
Stewart says she took her newborn to Mandela’s room and sat with the man that all South Africans knew as “Mandiba.”
His head and eyes were bandaged. She says he held her hand, touched her baby’s head and wished the child well.
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