When I'm at a dinner party and someone asks the group to name the most impressive person they have ever met, I have a ready answer: Nelson Mandela. No one else comes close, not even President Barack Obama, who is pretty remarkable in person.
I met Mandela in May 2000 when he was 82 years old. He had just completed his term as South Africa's first black president after spending 27 years of his life as a political prisoner of the brutal white apartheid government.
I was part of a small group of editorial writers and columnists touring parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Mandela and his third wife, Graca Machel, graciously invited us to their home in the outskirts of Johannesburg.
Mandela possessed a preternatural humility. That is what impressed me most. As opposed to hubristic leaders whose egos take over rooms, Mandela emanated authority through quiet reserve. His watery eyes had seen it all.
Those eyes had been damaged by blinding glare from working hard labor in a lime quarry at the isolated Robben Island prison in Cape Town where he had been imprisoned for 18 years. We were asked not to use flash photography. Some in my group flew to Robben Island to see his concrete cell measuring 8 feet by 7 feet, so small you could touch its length by lying down.
The former anti-apartheid revolutionary, whose African National Congress was once listed by the United States as a terrorist group, emerged as a transformational world figure for his willingness to reject revenge in favor of national reconciliation. Mandela thought it essential that whites and their business not flee and cripple the nation's economy as happened in other postcolonial African nations.
"It is futile to be bitter," Mandela said. There was no time for old grievances with so much nation-building to do. Then, surprising his guests, Mandela said, "It is tragic to spend the best years of your life in prison. But prison has certain advantages." He said it gave him time to be with himself and think through problems.
Earlier in the trip, the group and I had tromped through the Soweto-area black township home that Mandela had once shared with his second wife, Winnie, after leaving prison in 1990. It was a tiny block house set on a dusty postage-stamp-size lot, with bare electric lights hanging from a low ceiling. Ten years later, Mandela the ex-president and elder statesman had an elegant home in a walled compound with a verdant and leafy backyard.
Still, Mandela maintained his core commitment to economic justice for a subjugated people who had been kept poor through institutionalized racism. To our group, he expressed frustration over the lingering effects of three and a half centuries of white rule. But this was tempered by hope.
"Because of poverty, two, three, four or five children shared the same room, with no electricity, using paraffin lamps, candles and eating porridge in the morning, porridge at lunch and porridge at dinner. … It is people with that background who were suddenly given the task on the 27th of April 1994, to run a sophisticated country like South Africa, with advanced infrastructure, modern harbors, sophisticated banking and financial system.
"Having regard for that background and the fact that we have no experience in government, we have done very well."
Mandela inspired the world with his example, but he wanted our international group of opinion writers to understand that the work to put South Africa on a sustainable path was not his alone and that plenty of others would pick up the mantle after he was gone.
"It is a mistake to think that what has happened is the achievement of one man." What has been accomplished is a collective effort, Mandela said.
Humble to the end.