From the staff

Column: Nelson Mandela changed not just his nation, but the world

oquarles@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2013 

Washington, Lincoln, Gandhi – three men who had a profound impact on their countries and the world. Men who provided leadership and vision in different eras, with different styles.

Three men whom history has shown to have possessed unique courage during challenging times to do the right thing. Add the name Mandela to this list.

Nelson Mandela, who is 94 and in serious condition as he fights a lung infection, made a vivid impression when I was fortunate to meet him almost 20 years ago.

In 1995, The Associated Press Board of Directors traveled to South Africa to see what the former apartheid-run country, then led by Mandela and his African National Congress, was becoming. Mandela had been elected the year before as the country’s first black president, and there were high expectations for a country that had long treated its majority citizens as a third-class group. I was publisher of The Rock Hill Herald in South Carolina and serving my first term on the AP board.

When we arrived in Sandton, an area north of Johannesburg, we were told that the president would meet us and our spouses in an hour. We hurried and changed, and sure enough, Mandela was there on time.

Regal and robust

The first thing I noticed was how robust he looked for a man who was 76. He stood about 6 feet 2 and seemed regal in his colorful dashiki. I learned later that Mandela had trained to be a boxer as a youth and that being fit was a lifelong expectation.

After he was introduced by AP board chair and Raleigh resident Frank Daniels Jr., Mandela thanked the AP for telling the story. “It was the AP who constantly reminded the world about the unjust apartheid white supremacist government being run in South Africa,” Mandela said.

As he answered questions, I was thoroughly impressed. He made it clear that the transition to majority rule had to take place without violence as he knew the world was watching. He also knew it would not be easy. He ended the meeting by shaking everyone’s hand.

Progress and poverty

Our tour took us to Soweto, the town that led the uprising to change the system of government. There we saw progress but also shocking poverty.

A few days later, we visited Robben Island, where Mandela spent many of his 27 years in prison as a convicted political prisoner. There, he wrote “Long Walk to Freedom” and learned to speak several languages from fellow prisoners.

I think Mandela would be the first to tell you that he alone was not responsible for the positive changes that have happened in South Africa. I think he would also tell you that the country still has a long way to go to overcome the years of a system that was designed to make people suffer.

Mandela, or “Madiba,” as he is called in his hometown of Qunu, has been given the well-deserved title of the Father of South Africa. May he long be remembered for what he did for his own country, and the changes that followed in lands far from Africa. And may his name be spoken with Washington, Lincoln and Gandhi.

Orage Quarles III is president and publisher of The News & Observer Publishing Co.

oquarles@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4659

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