And as his long life nears its end — he is in critical condition at a Pretoria hospital — his leadership holds many lessons for those in U.S. federal service.
I feel a personal connection to Mandela, as do probably the thousands of people who have met him. I began covering South Africa for the Wall Street Journal in 1986, when the government was an oppressive, violent, white racist regime. I later had numerous encounters with Mandela, from the time he was released from prison in 1990 to his election and inauguration in 1994 and beyond.
I’ve written about many public officials over the years. None can stand up to Mandela. What stands out most about him is his sense of principle.
I remember my first interview with him shortly after his release and how struck I was by his poise and presence. He answered questions from groups of journalists gathered in the yard outside his small Soweto home with poise and confidence, like a man who had been in public service all his life.
In fact, Mandela was a public servant before he went to jail and during his incarceration, long before his inauguration.
All of the work and fighting he did before being jailed was to improve conditions for South Africa’s people. Even his nearly three decades in captivity served to inspire the public. It was during those years that he developed a relationship with government employees, though those particular workers were charged with keeping him locked up.
“His relationship with the South African civil servants was forged in the furnace of Robben Island,” the prison off Cape Town’s coast, said James Sanders, who has written about apartheid. “Eventually, the prison authorities and the intelligence officials who negotiated with him in the late 1980s came to respect him greatly. This established a pattern that continued through the 1990s.”
Mandela made clear his orientation as a public servant immediately after getting out of prison. In the third sentence of his first speech upon being released after 27 years, he said “I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.”
He became a government employee when he was inaugurated as South Africa’s first democratically elected president in 1994. It was an extraordinary day, filled with pomp and excitement. But the importance of that day goes far beyond the election of one man.
More than a change in administrations — and U.S. government employees know what that can mean — Mandela’s inauguration marked the eradication of a system of government based on race and its replacement with a democratic one.
“We are both humbled and elevated by the honor and privilege that you, the people of South Africa, have bestowed on us, as the first president of a united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa, to lead our country out of the valley of darkness,” he said at the time.