This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
One of our favorite stories about Nelson Mandela, who died today, was told by Joseph Lelyveld of the New York Times. Mr. Lelyveld was well on his way to becoming executive editor when, in 1990, Mandela came to New York for his great first visit. It was the visit on which he was given a ticker tape parade. It would have been a meaningful occasion at any time, but it was all the more so because Mayor Dinkins, the city’s first (and so far only) African American mayor, was in office.
Mayor Dinkins hosted Mandela in Gracie Mansion, and at one point a delegation from the Times was brought in to see the legendary leader of the African National Congress. Mandela invited the visiting newspapermen to introduce themselves. Mr. Lelyveld, who’d won his Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Move Your Shadow,” on South Africa, was so awed at meeting Mandela that he couldn’t remember what position he held at the paper.*
We’ve always loved that story — and Lelyveld for it — because it illustrates the power of Mandela to humble even the most experienced and noble of that most cynical of trades. His life reminds us of, among other things, the fact that each generation hands up its giants. People sometimes disparage those who came after the generation of World War II, which became known as the greatest generation. And, oh, they were great. But let us remember they were not the end of greatness.
The travail of South Africa and the triumph that Mandela did so much to deliver will for all time be one of the towering stories of the 20th century. There are not many epics to rival the overthrow of apartheid, all the more so because for so many years the apartheid regime seemed so entrenched and a revolution of liberty seemed an impossible vision. This was our own impression in the 1980s, when Mandela was still in prison and we met in London with an agent of the ANC.
Our meeting took place in a dank hallway in a run-down building in a poor part of town. Over the years we’d met all sorts of visionary leaders when they were out of power and down and out — Kim Dae Jung, under house arrest in South Korea; Senator and Mrs. Aquino of the Philippines, when he was in exile; Ariel Sharon of Israel, when he was out of power and down on his farm; labor organizers working in exile for Solidarity, when it was but a small union in Gdansk. But the fellow from the ANC seemed particularly unprepossessing.
Our error. We don’t know what happened to him. But we can imagine that he ended up part of the government of a free South Africa, maybe an ambassador or a minister. If all this was hard to imagine, how much more awesome the vision, the fortitude, the courage that Mandela had to maintain on Robben Island. It was the source of the enormous regard with which he was held by his countrymen and by the rest of the world — that and the strength that enabled him to cast aside bitterness and revenge in favor of compromise and unity.
This was recalled, in one way or another, by all the living American presidents, most pointedly by President Obama, who made a point of visiting with Mandela as the South African leader was struggling to hang on to life. “We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again,” Mr. Obama said. “So it falls to us as best we can to forward the example that he set: to make decisions guided not by hate, but by love; to never discount the difference that one person can make; to strive for a future that is worthy of his sacrifice.”
In the dark days of the Cold War, we shared many of the concerns that enveloped Mandela’s party, which was so riddled with communists. He was disappointing on Israel. Such concerns were well put in the editorial issued this evening by the Wall Street Journal, which likened his political transition, his transformation, to that of Vaclav Havel. “[T]he illiberal ANC and the illiberal National Party together negotiated a liberal new constitution with strong protections for minorities and an independent judiciary,” is the way the Journal put it. “You do not compromise with a friend,” it quoted Mandela as saying. “You compromise with an enemy.” The fact that the free world still has enemies with which there can be no compromise only underlines the greatness of Mandela’s life.
* Update: Some details of this anecdote have been corrected from an earlier edition.