My good friend Stef Lach, a South African journalist, had a piece published in the Herald yesterday entitled 'I didn't understand the significance of what I was seeing'. Stef tells us he was 11 years old when Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island. He didn't fully understand the significance of it all until much later. The point of telling you this is that I was 32 at the time, and I can't help but think I didn't either. I thought I did, but it took several years before I really knew he was more than a popular figure for others to latch onto to make themselves seem politically sensitive. It's possible that only now can I see him for what he really was, perhaps the single most important political figure of my lifetime.
The end of apartheid appears to me to have been inevitable. I'm firmly of the opinion that any people pushed hard enough will eventually fight back and will in the end prevail. Madiba was a figurehead, a political focal point when in jail, but it was his life after that which emphasises how great he became. This was his finest hour, the building of the Rainbow Nation. Truth and reconciliation were so important. The end of minority power could, as in Zimbabwe, have become a bloodbath, but South Africa got lucky. They picked the right man. It was his insistence on everyone having a say which was the salvation of South Africa.
It's probably fair to say that one of the strangest experiences of learning more about South Africa was getting my head around the idea of whites, with their historical command of power, could actually look up to a man who was dedicated to ending their wrong-headed method of government. That was naive of me. I hadn't allowed for the fact that South African whites might have that keen sense of right and wrong I so obviously possessed, me being British. Now I see Stef talk about how his mother cried when Andile, the first non-white pupil at his primary school, was named dux. How could I not have known that people like Stef's mother existed?
Maybe Stef didn't know at the time what he was living through, but I'm deeply envious of him that he did. I have three good South African friends at my rugby club, all white and all deeply proud of their nation. That's the way it should be, and that's largely due to the foresight and understanding of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. He was able to look his former enemies in the eye and forgive them. He will be missed but I'm as sure as I can be that it will be a long time before he's forgotten.