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Column: And Eyewitness to Mandela’s Magnanimity

As a foreign correspondent for The Washington Post , Lynne Duke, who died April 19, 2013, at the age of 56, covered the late Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 and his presidency. Her experiences as a journalist covering the transformative time in South Africa as well as the region at large are chronicled in her 2003 memoir, Mandela, Mobutu and Me: A Newswoman’s African Journey . Parts of the following essay, which she wrote for The Root in 2011 but is being published now for the first time, were condensed from her memoir.

Behind the miniblinds inside a private suite at a Cape Town hospital, lamplight cast President Nelson Mandela’s figure in silhouette. He was seated. And amazingly, outrageously, the woman he had gone to meet that February evening in 1999 paced in front of him, gesturing angrily in his face.

Rozanne Visagie was beside herself, and for good reason. Her husband, Schalk Visagie, a senior police anti-terrorism official, had just been rushed to the hospital after being shot in a highway ambush.

That day Mandela remained unrattled, even magnanimous, in the face of her anger.

I was traveling with Mandela as part of my coverage as the Johannesburg bureau chief for The Washington Post. After puddle jumping between four small towns in the Western Cape Province, where Mandela gave several speeches on national hope and racial unity, we’d just boarded the presidential jet for the flight back to Jo’burg, when Mandela learned of Visagie’s ambush and dire prognosis.

“I must go to the hospital to see him,” he told his secretary. It seemed a routine presidential show of support for a fallen man in uniform.

But Mrs. Visagie, I soon learned, wasn’t just any wife of a cop. She was the daughter of P.W. Botha, the “Great Crocodile” — the snarling embodiment of death and destruction in the apartheid era of white minority rule. Botha was Mandela’s jailer. Botha considered Mandela a terrorist.

Even after Mandela became the first democratically elected president in 1994, Botha thumbed his nose at Mandela’s attempts to cajole him to speak voluntarily before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mandela felt that Botha’s participation would have been important for national healing. But Botha refused. He was hauled into court in 1998 for contempt for ignoring a commission subpoena.

There was no love lost between Mandela and Botha. But precisely because of that fraught history, Mandela found it imperative to show his support in a crisis such as the shooting of Visagie. As I watched the silhouette scene unfolding, I realized that I was witnessing Mandela’s famous magnanimity at work.

These gestures of reconciliation had defined his presidency. He lunched with Percy Yutar, the prosecutor in the 1963 conspiracy case that resulted in a life sentence for Mandela. He took tea with Betsy Verwoerd, widow of Hendrik Verwoerd, one of the architects of apartheid.

He’d even developed amiable relations with a right-wing general, Constand Viljoen, who tried to mount a rebellion to disrupt the historic 1994 election. And when South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995, Mandela hailed the team in that Afrikaner sporting bastion by wearing the jersey of its captain.

His indefatigable push for reconciliation became the glue that held the fractious country together during a transition that could have descended into civil war. He wasn’t alone in this outreach, but his effort, as president, was perhaps most important of all. Mandela had made it his mission to ensure that all South Africans knew they were welcome in the new democracy. History required him to take up this cause.

Reconciliation and bridge building were the most important arrows in his quiver as president. That was Mandela’s mission. Whether he wanted to reconcile or not is immaterial, though I spent far too much time back then trying to divine an answer. I realized, though, that the personal and the political were one with Mandela. His intellectual and moral core was completely focused on furthering his crusade to unite and stabilize South Africa.

Mandela knew that generosity of spirit was a strategic necessity, and so he became generous of spirit to woo his former enemies because they were, under his presidency, the enemy within. He’d inherited the apartheid-era military and civil service as part of the negotiated settlement, which protected public service employees of the old regime. The storm troopers of apartheid, filled with misgivings or downright hostility toward black rule, would not be purged.

Alas, Mandela’s people ran the nation’s politics, but they did not run the military. Black magnanimity was an imperative, though that didn’t mean Mandela did not, from time to time, castigate whites for clinging to privilege or obstructing progress for the vast ocean of South Africa’s black and brown poor.

The nation’s racial politics were oh so freighted, so tense. And I could literally feel that tension beginning to crackle there in the hospital hallway outside Mrs. Visagie’s suite, where some of her friends had begun to gather as the silhouetted drama continued. She wagged her finger in Mandela’s face. She flailed her arms.

I could understand how upset and frightened she must have been, but she was way out of line! And I wasn’t the only one to think so. There in the hallway, I could hear the quiet deliberations of others who were debating the merits of Mrs. Visagie’s desire to release a statement blaming her husband’s ambush on the lifting of the death penalty by Mandela’s government.

Some in the crowd saw the fingerprints of the Great Crocodile on this idea. I heard one anguished voice say, “If P.W. wants to send a political message, he mustn’t do it under these circumstances.”

Soon, Mandela emerged. He looked even more tired than when he’d arrived. He made a brief, pro forma statement to the press outside the hospital, hoping for the recovery of the stricken officer. His mood seemed dour as we headed back to the airport for the return flight to Johannesburg.

Aboard the plane I tried to interview him, as we’d planned, but it was rough going. The president was not in the mood. As much as I wanted to speak with him, even I could see that he needed to rest.

A doting flight attendant removed his shoes and placed a fringed blanket over him. With a feeling of some sadness, I watched as the old warrior closed his eyes after another long day of battle for his nation.

“I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come,” he wrote in Long Walk to Freedom, his 1994 autobiography. “But I can only rest for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”

Lynne Duke served as Johannesburg bureau chief for The Washington Post from 1995 to 1999.