In February and March of 1990, I had a profoundly life-changing experience. At the time, I was working for Robert J. Brown, former aide to President Richard M. Nixon, as a vice president for the international division of Brown’s B&C Associates. The position required my spending many months in South Africa. Never in America, before or since, had I felt and seen such racism, raw and ugly, as was laid bare in South Africa, where Blacks were treated as chattel and subhuman. I was treated that way myself until they heard my accent or saw my passport. Suddenly, I was OK to the racist throngs and treated with all respect. Only my U.S. passport differentiated me from other Blacks, but apparently that was enough.
Very quickly, this exposure started to harden me, and for the first time, hate began to seep within my heart. But then, on Feb. 11, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. Brown had been a friend to Mandela and his wife, Winnie, and he arranged for me to be one of the first to interview Mandela and to act as his personal secretary after his early release from prison.
Every day, Mandela would come into the office and express his gratitude to the staff, which consisted of Juan Williams and myself. He would personally offer us cookies and tea. This certainly was not the stoic figure of defiance that I had expected.
When it came time for me to interview him, he opened my eyes while reinforcing the teaching of my parents. He reluctantly told me of the abuse heaped upon the Black prisoners by the white guards. I will not go into the gratuitous details, but the guards would degrade the inmates in ways that amount to torture in order to establish their control. My blood slowly began to boil as he poured out the tales of his prison life, but then something amazing happened.
“The first lesson is forgiveness,” he said. “You must not allow hate to fester in your brain. You can never allow racism, hatred and bitterness to rent space in your head.”
These words were profound. Despite the years of fighting apartheid and surviving prison, Mandela had forgiven all those who had attempted to ruin or shatter him. If this man could purge hate from his mind for what he endured, then surely I, who had borne much less, must find it in myself to do the same. And so hatred was evicted from my soul, never to rent space again.
Mandela taught me much about life that day and during the few weeks I worked with him. He believed that forgiveness and love were the only ways to heal South Africa and lead it into a brighter tomorrow. You cannot take the mantle of leadership with hate if you hope to succeed, and the absolution turned those who had once been his enemies into footstools. He dispersed other tips about exercising daily and eating right, which I again took to heart and practice to this day.
As we all know, Mandela went on to become president of his country and finish the job of dismantling apartheid. Unfortunately, South Africa is still a hard and divided country to this day, and to many, Mandela was only the beginning of a long process that will take decades in order to heal and empower the disenfranchised of South Africa.
As a symbol in prison, Mandela had the power and significance of a martyr. His spirit of resistance to the bigoted regime was inspiration to all those who longed to overthrow oppression. Many have labeled Mandela a terrorist for the activities of his youth with the co-founding of the Umkhonto we Sizwe, a militant group that attacked government installations. Mandela resorted to such tactics only when the South African government continually met peaceful protests with deadly force.
He tried civil disobedience. He attempted to turn the other cheek time and time again. Eventually, he concluded that only fighting for freedom would end the oppression. He pledged to fight for democracy, peace, harmony and equal rights for all peoples of the nation. That is not the anthem of a terrorist. I can assure you that you’ve never heard Osama bin Laden use such rhetoric or attempt all possible peaceful means before resorting to violence aimed at the government he resisted.
As a student of the Bible, Mandela has taught us that throughout history from time to time, God has used the absolute worst of sinners to do his greatest deeds and great works in moving the world forward for generations to come. Moses was a murderer, David was a philanderer and some have come to call Mandela a terrorist, yet God found humility in them all and used them to change the world. In my conversation with him just five days after his release, he himself admitted to me that he was a sinner, yet he had hardened the strength to let hatred, bitter and anger go. Once finding such purpose and meaning for his life, he was elected as the first Black president of South Africa just four years later in 1994. Instead of punishing and destroying his captors, he embraced them as his brothers, allies and comrades. He set forth a powerful example of forgiveness and making one’s enemy their footstool, as foretold in the Bible. In many ways, Mandela was quite plainly a prophet. These are the principles of the freedom fighter that Mandela, like George Washington, himself was.
It was that image that fueled the anti-apartheid movement—pure resistance by any and all means necessary. But then a new man emerged from prison, one preaching love and forgiveness, exerting characteristics resembling the peacefulness of Gandhi more so than the militant forte of Malcolm X. He was such a guiding light to the world that South African leaders had no way to stop him. As I’ve said before, many were privately and publicly disappointed in what Mandela was able to accomplish in moving those subjected to the worst of racism toward economic and social freedom. The myth had finally met the man. Impossible expectations were placed upon him. The glorious revolution would not happen and the evil tyrants would not be strung up. They were exonerated. Even though apartheid ended, racial harmony did not descend upon the nation. Faced with reality, Mandela’s own humanity, disappointment and disillusionment set in. But we should all recognize the truth of the matter, which is that even though a martyr can be more powerful than a man, sometimes the man can be greater than his image. Despite his human failings, and yet because of them, Mandela is just such a man.
As Mandela is now being mourned by his native South Africa as well as the rest of the world, I cannot help but reflect on how much he genuinely meant to the world. He transcended race and progressed upon his own ability to move on. He truly was prophetic. On a personal level, one of my greatest keepsakes is a signed note of gratitude from both Nelson and Winnie Mandela that I keep framed on my office wall. That note was written on a page from my passport—the passport that acted as a shield from hate. It reminds me to never rent space in my heart or head to the hatred and bitterness. How fortunate I was to be there and live through that time. To meet the man called Mandela was the experience of a lifetime.
Armstrong Williams is the author of the brand-new book “Reawakening Virtues.” Join him 4-5 p.m. EST at www.livestream.com/armstrongwilliams or tune in 4-5 p.m. EST on S.C. WGCV, Sirius/XM Power 128, 6-7 p.m. and 5-6 a.m. EST. Become a fan on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.