How lucky we are there was a man such as Nelson Mandela

The miracle of Mandela is that 27 years of imprisonment did not harden his soul

When someone you have known or loved or both dies, there seems to occur a great tearing in the fabric of the world. A weird emptiness opens for a moment and then the impatient air rushes in to fill the vacuum, the empty shape where that person once stood. Soon, life picks up its rhythms again and you learn to live with absence.

What if that tearing is not directly personal? Not immediately one’s own. What if the great absence is felt by the entire everybody of the world as seemingly personal, as everyone’s own? What if the hole left behind cannot be filled? If the shape of the person is too huge, too needed by us all, too important to our sense of what it is to be correctly human? What if the absence is of such an enormity that there is simply not enough air in the atmosphere to gush into the gap left behind, to seal the wounded void?

That is where we now stand with Nelson Mandela’s death. History stops, kneels and bows its head. His like is rare in all of human history. There will be others, but not for a long, long time and certainly not in our lifetimes. But we did live with him. We did live in his times. We could see what humans could be, even if we failed so utterly to live up to his impossible example. We have indeed been privileged to have known such a man. To live in his time.

Unbelievably for me – the irreverent, unschooled, pop-singing boy from Dún Laoghaire – I did know this giant. Possibly he was a friend. I think so. The world will go to the funeral but I don't want to. I will stay at home here and look at my pictures of Madiba with the children or with the band or making me listen to something that I should know and something that was always worth listening to.


He was a complete man. And I mean Man. He adored children. They played around him. He’d scoop them up, plonk them on his knee, make them laugh with that unmistakable deep, kind voice. He’d be in heaven and they’d be shouting and laughing with him. I have pictures of that with my kids. Can you imagine!

He was a dandy. He loved his clothes and particularly those mad ‘Mandela’ shirts that no one else on the planet could get away with wearing but that looked great on him.

He loved women. He was quite definitely, overtly and obviously a ladies' man. He flirted, followed them with his eyes, made them laugh, but his manners were those of the impeccable Edwardian gentleman that he was. He was ever elegant, never vulgar, never presumptuous. He understood and treated women as equals and engaged in as meaningful conversation with women as he did with men.

Conversation was fluent. Deep political analysis and discussion backed by a penetrating psychological curiosity about the personalities behind the political decisions. He would listen intently as much as he talked. He would argue strenuously for his views and once – when I would not give way – said sarcastically and with a touch of irritation, “I will bow to your greater knowledge in this area.” As we happened to be talking about events in Ireland that occurred while he was in prison, I agreed that he should. He was a bit annoyed.

He was not garrulous; he was interested in others’ points of view. I never heard him disparage another leader, regardless of how much he disagreed with their policies. He was neither a cynic nor a sceptic. How could he be?

He was obsessed by sport – being a boxer amongst other things. He had a razor-sharp mind – being Africa’s (not just South Africa’s, but Africa’s) first black lawyer. He was beyond courageous. A revolutionary, someone whose principles were so intense and focused that he was prepared to die for what he believed in.

How great a sacrifice it must be to be so exuberantly consumed with and engaged in the thrill of Life; to understand it as the sum expression of the joy or pain of what it is to be human; to gather up the totality of its offered pleasures and agonies and determine that it is utterly meaningless unless you are completely true to what you understand yourself to be, and that self is of no value if it is unfree.

Not free to live that own Life. Not allowed to engage with its potential. Not permitted to express the God-given "you" in all its simultaneous possibilities and limitations. And realising all of that, determine that, that same life that you loved so much was not worth a single minute, had no value whatsoever, if neither you nor others were permitted to be free to live it.

"Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart" Yeats reminds us in his great poem Easter 1916. The true miracle of Nelson Mandela is that it did not. Despite 27 years' incarceration in appalling conditions and the psychological torture through the destruction of his family and his country, impotent to be anything but resolute, he did not break and – most remarkably of all – his soul did not harden.

Rather, his intellectual discipline led him to understand the mind of his tormentor. He learned his language, studied his history and even came to appreciate and engage in his literature, writing poetry in Afrikaans himself. In that small cell on Robben Island he endured the slights, derision, insults and humiliations of 27 long years. But now he knew his enemy. And as he endured, they withered.

The panicked response of a small, isolated, endangered culture and its embattled, encircled people was to dream up apartheid, the process whereby people of any colour other than white simply did not exist. You could, by law, sort of make them not be there. They would be disempowered, disenfranchised, disembowelled culturally, politically, intellectually and socially. Hey presto, no blacks!

The intellectual preposterousness of this and its internal contradictions never seemed to occur to the apartheid governments. It is desperately odd, is it not, to build an illusory country on such a delusional construct? It was also depraved and vile, which led to great and terrible abuses. But that depravity ran headlong into the nobility of a great man. And was therefore beaten.

Churchill preached “magnanimity in victory”, but who could have imagined the humility, the graciousness, the dignity, the generosity and forgiveness that Mandela displayed to his oppressors upon his final, total success? In private he pitied them. He knew precisely what he was doing. One visitor said, “Mr President, you have given great dignity to the black people.” Madiba replied instantly (and you can hear the inimitable cadence in his reply), “No, young man, you are wrong. I have given dignity to the white man. There is no dignity in the oppressor”.

He found freedom hard at first. He was bewildered by the world he encountered. In the last years of his confinement he had been allowed a television in his cell. He had followed the goings-on of the world through the undifferentiated lens of the myopic cathode ray tube.

But he was in a tiny cell on a remote island off the coast of an isolated country at the end of the world. There was no social context in which he could understand events, save what he knew from his past as an Edwardian prince of the tribal blood and a confused Methodist/Marxist, nationalist, revolutionary freedom fighter, a humanitarian, a jailed civil rights hero. Often he got it wrong.

He argued over what I often viewed as his misinterpretation of events viewed from inside his prison. At such moments he was stubborn, for example when I questioned the morality of toadying up to vile eastern European regimes in exchange for arms and aid, while people like Vaclav Havel – his exact moral equivalent – languished two floors beneath where Mandela's partner (in law and in revolution) Oliver Tambo bargained for the wherewithal to bring down the gangster South African regime. "You wouldn't help us," Mandela said. "They would. We did not have time for those niceties. I will not betray a friend."

I would say: you were not friends, it’s that you were simply a convenience in the larger exigencies of the Cold War. “That may be so, but you would not be our friend. We asked. You refused. They were.” It was simple but equally it was clear this was uncomfortable for him. Morality could be flexible. Unlike life inside that jail, it could bend and shift, it was not immutable. The world was more complex outside those walls.

So it was too with arguments over the murders of the IRA and their opposites. At times he was almost childishly naive. It was clear how prison could distort the contextual relevance of events.

This was a more serious problem in the negotiations with the apartheid government. It was lucky that he was negotiating with a man such as de Klerk. Not having many options, de Klerk had decided to negotiate with history rather than confront it. So too Gorbachev and David Trimble in Northern Ireland. Elegant men. Men of reason and courage. Mandela's team was brilliant and they fretted over their leader's often spontaneous interjections into the fraught negotiations. They need not have worried. His clear intelligence, generosity and sympathy for his defeated foes' plight ensured the smooth continuation of the dismantlement of the loathed apartheid regime.

Things were not so rosy in the social context. Upon his release, a high-level ANC team escorted Madiba to his new home. Along the way, staring out the window of his speeding car, he was shocked to see the latest fashions worn by young men and women. "Look at these faggots," he said in a Xhosa equivalent of the derogatory verbiage. "Madiba, we don't say that anymore," fretted his entourage. "Why not?" the old man replied. "That is what they are." He tut-tutted the girls in their short skirts. "They should not go about like that." Again it was explained that a cultural revolution had taken place during his incarceration. That homosexuals and women had the right to be as they wished, just as blacks or whites or "coloureds" had.

Rip Van Winkle
His team panicked that they couldn't let the Great Man near a TV crew until they had explained the brave new world into which this political Rip Van Winkle had stepped. It took a while, but after a couple of months of having societal change laboriously explained to him, he finally understood the political implication of social issues. His intellect overcame his crude emotional reflexes. This old man henceforth spoke for and to the liberties of women, homosexuals, AIDS victims, the impoverished and all those deemed lesser because of spurious difference.

He created his country. He stood for election, established the nation for all its citizens – including the beneficiaries of the previous regime – and then most elegantly stepped down. The rest of his life was spent speaking for those whom he had always represented: the put-upon, the beaten-down, the beaten-up, the mute, the powerless, the hungry, the ill and the countless others. He was never seduced by the hero-worship or honours heaped upon him. He understood his value and, until he could no longer do it, he kept going. Now he is gone. We don’t have him any more. History owns him.

Perhaps Garibaldi is his closest historical equivalent. From nowhere a modest man creates his country and is globally honoured. Somehow Mandela transcends, at least for now, that simple reductionism. The overwhelming impression that Nelson Mandela (my friend!!!) leaves trailing behind him is kindness, generosity, fun, humility, forgiveness, dignity, intelligence, intense moral courage and physical bravery.

Could we ever be like that? Could any of us? How is it possible? And yet it is. We saw it. We lived through it. We watched him. What a Man. What a glorious human being. He leaves so much behind. So many examples and achievements to impossibly emulate. And therefore he also leaves a terrible grieving world and its unembarrassed sense of profound loss.

Philip Larkin was so demonstrably right: "What will survive of us is Love". Nelson Mandela was truly, genuinely loved. He knew it and he never – not once – betrayed, besmirched or cheapened it.

What a Man. I knew him. We all did. How lucky we are that there was such a man.