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He Changed the Course of History

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A man died yesterday. He was 95 years old and had been seriously ill for several months. Not an unusual occurrence, yet his death is reported this morning on the front page of just about every newspaper on earth.

That man was Nelson Mandela, one of the very few men of whom it can truthfully be said that he personally changed the course of history.

In a piece I wrote last June, when it became clear that his life was drawing to a close, I recalled the febrile days leading up to the crucial South African elections in 1994, when Mandela was elected as the country's first black president in its first genuinely free and multi-racial elections.

I remarked that it had become easy to forget, after nearly 20 years, how deep were the fears as voters prepared to go to the polls. In the run-up to the election, weapons were reported stolen from an air force base; 21 prisoners were killed in a jail riot; 30 people were killed during violent protests by Zulus in Johannesburg; a state of emergency was declared in Kwa-Zulu Natal; and nine people were killed and more than 90 injured when a car bomb exploded in central Johannesburg.

Wherever you went, I recalled - and I was in South Africa at the time - there were predictions of a bloodbath to come. The white minority would launch a coup; the armed forces would mutiny; tribal tensions would explode into an orgy of violence and killing.

None of it happened. Was it all because of one man: Nelson Mandela?

One of the most commonly asked questions by historians is this: How much difference can one leader make? Mahatma Gandhi? Abraham Lincoln? Winston Churchill?

The right man, at the right time, in the right circumstances. When Mandela emerged from jail in 1990 and revealed himself to be almost super-naturally free of anger or bitterness, he set an example that enough of his fellow South Africans were prepared to follow. Few could match his apparent serenity and deep belief in reconciliation - but by the power of his rhetoric and his example, yes, he did make a real difference.

I apologise for repeating myself, but in my piece last June I wrote: "I'm not a great fan of 'What if ...?' questions - but I've always been intrigued by the relationship between the individual and the sweep of history. We all have our faults, even the greatest of leaders - perhaps especially the greatest of leaders - and when the time comes to draw up the balance sheet, it is right that there should always be two columns, one for the pluses, and another for the minuses."

Nelson Mandela was no saint. He wasn't the best of fathers, nor was he the best of husbands. As president, he had a blind spot for far too long about HIV and AIDS, and he probably should have done much more to ensure that there were enough skilled leaders to take over from him after he left office.

Yet the balance sheet remains overwhelmingly a positive one. When I had the privilege of meeting him in 2001, I was struck - as was everyone who met him - by his inner calmness, his humility and charm, and by the most extraordinary twinkle in his eyes when something amused him.

I remember his reaction when he was asked where he bought his famous multi-coloured shirts. His eyes lit up and he laughed: "Buy them? I don't buy them. I can't remember when I last bought a shirt. People send them to me, and I'm very grateful."

The death of a 95-year-old man is not a tragedy, it's simply the way of things. South Africa entered a post-Mandela reality many years ago, as the former President became ever more frail and ever less visible to the people of South Africa and the world.

For many months now we have known that he was dying, and we have known that we would be saddened when the moment came. We were ready.

As for the verdict of history, there will be many and various in the years and decades ahead. For now, as I said six months ago, my own verdict is just this: Yes, of course, South Africa could, and should, be so much better than it is. But it also could have been so much worse. And for that, we do have one man to thank.

Around the Web

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