Oh, That This Earth Had More like Nelson Mandela

By Richard Cohen Copyright Washington Post Writers Group | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 13, 1994 | Go to article overview

Oh, That This Earth Had More like Nelson Mandela


Richard Cohen Copyright Washington Post Writers Group, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Albert Einstein's brain is in the possession of Dr. Thomas Harvey of Lawrence, Kan., who has over the years peered into it to discover the secret of genius. He has learned nothing. But if, as Alexander Pope wrote, the proper study of mankind is man, let us study the living Nelson Mandela. He is, as the gentle Einstein would have acknowledged, an even greater miracle. Nothing accounts for the man except the man himself.

Mandela humbles psychology. Where in his childhood do we find clues to his character? He was raised in a polygamous household; his mother was the third of four wives. His father died when he was 12. He loved the stunningly beautiful Winnie, divorcing his first wife to marry her. But a life on the run and then in jail meant he saw her seldom. Daily in jail, he would dust her photo. It was 20 years before his wardens allowed them to embrace. When, finally, they separated, he said, "My love for her remains undiminished."

He lived underground and on the run and paced a cell on Robben Island, South Africa's Alcatraz. He was treated like dirt, but he came out of prison with his immeasurable dignity intact. He said prison "matured" him, but nearly three decades earlier, at his trial in 1964, he uttered words remarkably similar to those we've heard recently: "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society. . . ." He was sentenced to prison for the rest of his life. He was 44 when he went in, 71 when he got out.

Mandela's lack of rancor is downright dumbfounding. In an age of the strutting, vengeance-seeking political leaders, he is an anomaly. Never mind 27 years in jail. Never mind the time robbed from fatherhood and marriage - bedtime stories and bed, the mundane pleasures that are the condiments of life. Like all black South Africans, he suffered on account of his skin. As good as any man, better in fact than most, he was treated little better than an animal. The essence of apartheid wasn't segregation; it was a forced mortification, an incessant humiliation by the state. There is ample reason for anger here.

I was in South Africa once. …

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