Nelson Mandela did many things to make the world a better place.

He also made my mom beam.

My mother, Margaret Davidson, visited me while I was posted in Johannesburg for the Wall Street Journal in 1991. It was a tumultuous and violent time after Mandela’s release from 27 years in prison and before he became president of South Africa.

Mandela was very accessible to the media, so after a news conference at a downtown hotel, I introduced them.

“You have a fine son,” he told her in his unfailingly courteous way.

It might have been a throwaway line. But with his courtly, gentle manner, it sounded real, at least to her. It made me feel good, too. I so regret not having a photo of that moment.

It showed a personal side of Mandela that was important to his success, but that can too easily be overshadowed by his extraordinary political accomplishments.

The magnitude of the international tributes to Mandela indicates the incomparable impact he had not just on South Africa, but on all of us. He was more than just the first black president of his nation. He led his country as it eradicated an entrenched system of white superiority, brutal racism and black oppression, then created a new South Africa based on strong notions of reconciliation and equality that are protected by one of the world’s most progressive constitutions.

Now this moral force is gone, who died Thursday at age 95. His memory, his legacy and what he taught us will last, but the pain is still fresh. The hole feels deep.

There is much to appreciate about Madiba, as South Africans affectionately call him.

He was a reconciler and a freedom fighter — that’s why he is revered. What many might not realize is he also was a romantic and man of sentimentality. He demonstrated his love, his longing and his loneliness in letters from prison to “My dearest Winnie,” his then-wife, Winnie Mandela.

“Your beautiful photo still stands about two feet above my left shoulder as I write this note. I dust it carefully every morning, for to do so gives me the pleasant feeling that I’m caressing you as in the old days. I even touch your nose with mine to recapture the electric current that used to flush through my blood whenever I did so.” April 15, 1976.


Nelson Mandela, also known as Madiba, led the struggle to replace South Africa's apartheid regime with a multi-racial democracy. See key moments in his life.


Listen to an excerpt of Mandela's famous speech.

“Whenever I write you, I feel that inside physical warmth, that makes me forget all my problems. I become full of love.” Oct. 16, 1976.

“As usual, I kept addressing you as Mum but my body kept telling me that a woman is sitting across this platform. I felt like singing, even if just to say Hallelujah.” Nov. 22, 1979, after a visit from Winnie.

Mandela was a man of unwavering principle, though that did not prevent him from also being pragmatic. He refused to accept release from prison until after other political prisoners were freed and the African National Congress, his political organization, was unbanned.

Found guilty of sabotage against the apartheid regime, he was sentenced to life at the 1964 Rivonia Trial. He stood on principle and his words there became a defining moment in the Mandela mystique.

He didn’t deny that he had planned sabotage and said he had determined that “without sabotage, there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the government. ”

Thirty years later, he was sworn in as president of the South African government.

The crowd was large and joyful in Pretoria that day in May, when suddenly military planes roared overhead. For a moment some of us wondered if a coup was at hand. Instead, it was an airborne salute marking a peaceful transition from white minority rule to democracy.

South Africa was no longer an outlaw, Mandela said. “Humanity has taken us back into its bosom.”

Joe Davidson first reported from South Africa for the Wall Street Journal in 1986 and covered Mandela after Mandela’s release from prison, his election and inauguration.