Madiba: In the Presence of Greatness

12/11/2013 10:24 am ET | Updated Feb 10, 2014

As a professor and fellow of the Fulbright Institute of International Relations -- named after Sen. J.W. Fulbright -- in late 1985 I led a small delegation of Americans from various professions on a fact-finding trip across the Republic of South Africa (RSA) and Namibia. Apartheid and white rule were still very much in force in a country with an overwhelming majority of native Africans. One unpleasant side effect: Afrikaaners and Anglos would sidle up to members of our white delegation -- some of whom were southerners -- and make patronizing remarks like: "We know you can understand our plight because of your own history." Violent repression of protests was common in urban ghettos like Soweto (Johannesburg) and Crossroads, near Cape Town's international airport.

In the spring of 1986, I was invited back to teach a course on American-Soviet Cold War relations at the liberal University of Cape Town (U.C.T). It had been widely assumed by whites that international Communism was spearheading a conspiracy against apartheid. Sponsored by the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), at the University of the Witwatersrand, I also traveled to speak to its branches in several cities. From my travels and conversations with African leaders and moderate white leaders, I developed great hope for the future of Sud Afrika, in part due to its great wealth but primarily due to the moral titan sitting in prison on Robben Island whose name was on both the lips of leaders and common folk: Nelson Mandela. As apartheid was in its death throes, his eventual ascension to power was widely speculated about. But civil war and doom were forecast, regardless.

One of my students at U.C.T., quietly taking notes, was Zindzi Mandela, the youngest child of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. One day she came to my office and confided to me that she shared her notes with her father when she would visit him in prison. Her father was most interested in the Soviet Union; and was more than a student of Marxism.

In May of 1990, I returned to South Africa, with my college student daughter, Elizabeth. (As an epidemiologist, she later lived in the country for periods of time.) Mandela had been released from prison in February; and was in the early stages of "transitioning" into power by election to a five-year term in 1994. I learned that he was meeting with major corporate leaders of the country on the top floor of the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg; and passed him a note through aides. Word came back that I was to wait in the downstairs lobby.

An hour later, I became aware that someone tall was looming over my chair. I looked up, and there was "Madiba" himself. A giant of a man, beaming down at me, with a twinkle in his eye. He graciously thanked me for having his daughter in my class; and specifically for her class notes. We talked about the world situation and Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, for a while. And parted with a strong handshake, my hand enveloped by his.

Over time, I have met three presidents, known many U.S. Senators and several Secretaries of State, and a few foreign leaders. But never have I been in the presence of greatness that I felt at that moment.

The persona (transparent mask) of the man encompassed surpassing moral strength and generosity of spirit, the strong physical constitution of one who had been a warrior and who had spent years on rock piles and in salt mines, and the wisdom of forgiveness that comes from the lines of suffering.

Yes, I believe that individuals can shape history; and that this man bent the moral arc of the universe in which we live. Comparable to George Washington -- who fought some real battles against the British -- Mandela is the father of his country. I just trust that no Lincoln will be required as the great country evolves.