Former South African president Nelson Mandela waves to the media as he arrives outside 10 Downing Street, in central London, for a meeting with the British Prime Minister in 2007. (LEON NEAL/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

It’s a too-familiar story: Wayward politicians violate the public trust and find themselves behind bars.

But lately I’ve been thinking about a man whose service and leadership were partially forged in prison, long before he held elective office — Nelson Mandela, the ultimate public servant.

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.

Jessie Duarte, a longtime aide to Mandela who now is deputy secretary general of the ruling African National Congress, said Mandela believed that his election was an honor that “demanded that he serve with integrity,” a characteristic not always in abundance among elected officials here or abroad.

Mandela’s most notable achievement was his ability to unite a deeply divided country, a skill needed in Washington’s deeply divided political climate.

“As President of the country between 1994 and 1999 he prioritised nation-building, the work of reckoning with the past, and transforming South Africa’s international relations,” Verne Harris, director of research and archives at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, part of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said in an e-mail.

“He was an inspiring head of government, one who encouraged critical thinking and robust debate,” Harris said. “As a public servant myself throughout his presidency, I can attest to the almost universal respect he enjoyed across structures of the state and of government.”

Given the poor marks America’s federal employees give their leaders, it’s too bad the bosses here can’t take a refresher course from Mandela.

But his report card wasn’t filled with all good grades.

“He worked so hard to pull the nation together and move them forward that he did not get involved in the nitty-gritty side of government business. The ills of poor service delivery in democratic SA probably had its genesis under his rule,” said Leon Wessels in an e-mail interview. Wessels was a member of Parliament during white rule, but came to see apartheid as “a blight on the land.”

The white government Wessels served in, of course, provided almost no services to the country’s black majority.

Njabulo S. Ndebele, chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, said Mandela was “fearless, tough and compassionate, while being open to his own unsparing self-criticism,” characteristics used as he “consolidated the civil service, bringing into one national civil service the central government and the homeland governments all with their different cultures.

“It was a gigantic effort,” Ndebele said. “While it all worked at the level of aspiration, it required human competencies that were not widespread in availability. We are seeing the effects of that lack in diminishing state capability. . . . His major shortcoming was that he was a visionary but not a manager.”

Maybe not the best manager, but Mandela provided the inspiration, the energy and an infectious enthusiasm that transformed his country into a “new” South Africa.

And unlike the words and actions that Washington’s federal employees sometimes hear and see today, Wessels said Mandela “took every opportunity to assure civil servants that they were valued and their work appreciated.”

One such time was in April 1998, when, as president, he spoke to government employees at a hospital dedication. His words also apply to America’s public servants:

“Whether you change the linen or stitch up wounds, cook the food or dispense the medicines, it is in your hands to help build a public service worthy of all those who gave their lives for the dream of democracy.”

Twitter: @JoeDavidsonWP

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