The first rays of sunlight were starting to break through the smoke haze of a hundred thousand coal fires rising into the cloudless sky above the biggest black township on the African continent.
This was Soweto on a chilly autumn dawn in 1994. The following day, 20 million black South Africans would be free to vote in democratic elections for the first time in their lives.
The government had opened some polling stations a day early for the very old and disabled who might want to beat the crowds the next day. I had driven out to Soweto hoping enough people would have taken the opportunity of that early vote to give Radio 4’s Today programme a decent lead story. They had. From every polling station great queues snaked into the distance: grannies leaning on their sticks; old men in wheelchairs; young women with bulging, pregnant stomachs.
For an election that had not formally begun, this was already a turnout to gladden the heart. My editor in London asked me to do a live broadcast from a polling station.
I chose an old woman to interview who looked as though she might deliver a lively couple of minutes and asked her: ‘What will this vote mean for you?’ Her first answer was disappointingly low key.
‘For me, it means little,’ she said. This was not what I’d expected or wanted. Then she patted the stomach of the young woman next to her. ‘But for the young man in this woman’s belly, it will mean everything. He will have the dignity that has been denied to me all my life.’
In that one sentence she encapsulated the achievement of the man who died on Thursday night. I asked the women next to her what name she would give her new baby.
I think I knew what the answer would be. Nelson. What else could it be? Three days later, I stood in the dangerously overcrowded ballroom of the largest hotel in Johannesburg, deafened by the roar that greeted the arrival of the hero at his victory party. Nelson Mandela.
The first black president of South Africa. Over the years that followed, Mandela would become the most respected, the most revered, statesman of his time, his name a byword for courage and honour, humanity and humility, compassion and forgiveness. In towns and cities around the world, public buildings and streets would bear his name and the Nobel Peace Prize was merely one of a thousand honours to be bestowed on him.
Mandela would become the most famous figure of his time, his moral authority unquestioned, his autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom, required reading for anyone who wanted to understand something of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.
In these sceptical times, when our leaders struggle to gain our respect, it is tempting to suggest that no single figure can really be worthy of such adulation. Nelson Mandela, after all, was not unique. There have been other great liberation leaders.
He was not a great military hero like his English namesake or a brilliant scientist who changed the way we understand the world or a Churchillian figure who led his nation to victory with the power of his oratory.
He himself acknowledged that during his five years as president he failed to achieve one of the two great aims that he spoke of at his inauguration: to bring prosperity to black South Africans.
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