Monday is “Nelson Mandela International Day,” declared by the U.N. to honor the South African leader’s birthday. This year, the former president turns 93. In the article below, Mary McGrory wrote for the Post on May 12, 1994 that South Africa was dancing in the streets in honor of Mandela. Seventeen years later, the country still is celebrating the man:
Events in South Africa have made the previously pariah country the envy of the world. It is the only place where there is dancing in the streets.
It has for a president an enchanting personage who is preposterous. He was in jail for 27 years. He has not had one minute of experience in government. He has to find housing and jobs for millions of people. He has become commander in chief of forces whose entire resources were aimed at putting down blacks like him.
But South Africa has become a beacon of hope, maybe because every day Nelson Mandela says something that cries out to be inscribed in marble or a scene unfolds like the new black members of parliament filing past the portraits of the Afrikaners who created apartheid.
"I am your servant," says Nelson Mandela to delirious throngs, who believe him. At 75, he is beyond ambition. "We speak as fellow citizens to heal the wounds of the past with the intent of constructing a new order based on justice for all."
Mandela goes on the floor of the parliament and hugs Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Zulu chief who threatened to boycott South Africa's first democratic election and whose forces killed thousands in an attempt to stop Mandela.
Mandela embraces Frederik W. de Klerk, the former president whom he suspects of having colluded with Afrikaner security forces to instigate violence against the African National Congress. In Time magazine, Mandela accuses de Klerk of "very dirty racist tactics" in the chaotic election. But this is "national unity" time, and Mandela,who said, echoing Martin Luther King Jr., "free at last", when he was elected, has been free all along of vindictiveness. How can it be? He invited three of the guards from the jail where he spent what could have been embittering years. It is something for other politicians to contemplate. This elegant, radiant, noble soul apparently just closed his mind to hatred.
Mandela is going to give South Africa a government with a mandate for forgiveness. It will be the first time a country has an official policy that is nothing less than applied Christianity.
Nelson Mandela has won what Post correspondent Paul Taylor calls "one of history's sweetest victories over racial subjugation" and he is going to keep it clean and beautiful, so that newspaper readers will think they are reading scripture when they read dispatches from South Africa that cannot be read except through tears.
He is being strict about the new country he and de Klerk created. Blacks will have to learn tolerance, too. Prejudice is outlawed. Even on so minor a matter as the new national anthem, he is insisting on impartiality. When a predominantly black crowd balked at singing the old Afrikaner anthem, he reproached them. "You have to learn both."
In Bosnia, Serbs have blown up bridges that joined Serb and Muslim areas. In Rwanda, people are hacking their brothers and sisters to pieces. In Italy, a new prime minister is giving cabinet jobs to neo-Fascists. And South Africa is giving lessons in democracy and joy.
Can it last? It could, for one reason. South Africa is endowed with an exceptional number of large-minded men, the kind we had during our revolution: people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Walter Sisilu, a fellow prisoner of Mandela's at Robben Island. They are resilient, high-hearted and courageous. It also has distinguished writers, artists and musicians who can articulate the miracle that has taken place.
In a gripping New Yorker account of the negotiations that preceded the election, Allister Sparks gives the most plausible reason why the wonder may endure. One is that de Klerk is in his stolid Afrikaner way as bold and daring as Mandela,and that he is one of the preeminent statesmen of the 20th century. He saw that apartheid had to go as vividly as Mikhail Gorbachev saw that Communism was doomed. The difference, says Sparks, is that de Klerk knew that tinkering, like perestroika, would not work. Apartheid had to be eliminated. He did this on Feb. 2, 1990, in an astonishing speech.
Nine days later, Mandela was released from prison into the arms of delirious followers. Four years of negotiations between black and white followed. There was no outside party, no Norwegians, U.N., international commission. It was Afrikaner and African. In the preliminaries, the government showed as much imagination and subtlety as could be asked. Everything was hashed out among those most concerned.
In other words, the dancing, singing South Africa that is now on view was the work of two great leaders. That's all you ever need for human progress.