I did not meet Nelson Mandela. Not privately, that is.
However, in 2003 my family, which included my wife and our 19 year old son and 17 year old daughter, traveled to England for a family vacation. A large reason for this particular trip was the opportunity we would all have to hear Nelson Mandela give a speech in London. It was somehow important to me that my children have the opportunity to be in the presence of South Africa’s towering leader and to be able to tell their children one day that they had heard and seen the great man in person. In 2003 Mandela was already 85 years old and I don’t remember anything of what he said. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were also on the program and I don’t recall their remarks either but I do vividly recollect Clinton and Blair on either side of Mandela, steadying him as they all three exited the hall after the speech. It was a beautiful image of respect.
As the world celebrated the life of Mandela last week I caught myself wondering why it had been so important to me that my children see Mandela. I have had the opportunity to meet other politicians and public figures and celebrities of all stripes and I cannot think of any other that I would go to such lengths to have my children hear. My mother-in-law recently remarked how much her own mother, a poor, south Georgia school teacher in the first decades of the 20th century, revered Mahatma Gandhi. Did Gandhi present the same fascination for her that Mandela did for my generation?
Both Gandhi and Mandela were complicated human beings. Certainly there were flaws and imperfections in both, consistent with living long, scrutinized public lives. Last week I read a piece critical of the media’s rush to make a saint of Mandela. I don’t do that. He was neither perfect nor uncontroversial. But for me Nelson Mandela modeled personal sacrifice and rare public reconciliation of an almost unimaginable nature. Mandela was not a saint to me; he was a hero.
A few years back the pastor of my church told the story of taking his young son to the zoo for the first time. As they reached the elephant enclosure they gazed at the great lumbering beasts and he heard his son exclaim “so…there really are elephants!”
I suppose that is why we took our family to London in 2003. I wanted my children to be able to look at the stooping, frail old man as he walked past, supported by a President and a Prime Minister, and say to themselves “so…there really are heroes!”