Yesterday, after Nelson Mandela’s funeral, I went to Victor Verster Prison from where he was released in February 1990.
The flowers and messages, including a banner from the Department of Correctional Services which runs the prison, were very moving. They included many messages and drawings from children and sealed envelopes containing letters to the departed Mr. Mandela.
It is a strange Christmas in South Africa, a deeply religious country. The images everywhere are of one man and it is not Jesus. Stores have pictures of Mr. Mandela, sepia and lit by a candle. Each town has numerous small “places of tribute” where flowers and mementoes and candles are placed, as well as grander memorials.
All advertisements in the newspapers all week have been tributes to Mr. Mandela with the Nandos one saying simply “1918 – forever”.
I have been to Soweto many times. During his life people there frequently referred to Mr. Mandela as Jesus pointing out the house that “Jesus lived in.”
SABC, the sober state TV channel, referred yesterday to “the coffin carrying the Messiah being taken to the aircraft.”
There is an understandable fear of what will happen now in South Africa; Mr. Mandela undoubtedly exercised a powerful moral hold over the whole country.
The outstanding quality of this man, revered throughout the world, is forgiveness, not the winning of wars or the creation of empires. Whatever one’s religion, or lack of it, the comparison with Christ is impossible to ignore. The general forgiveness of the regime which imprisoned Mr. Mandela is one thing; as President to entertain to dinner the prosecutor who called for you to be hanged is quite another.
This mood is captured in a light-hearted manner with the spoof picture of St. Peter taking a “selfie” of himself with Mr. Mandela.
The story is told of how Mr. Mandela, upon his release from Victor Verster, was driven right out of the prison gates and not left in the direction of Cape Town, where he was to address the world hours after his release. Suspicious, Mr. Mandela questioned the route, unaware that the obvious route to Cape Town was impassable due to the hundreds of thousands of South Africans making their way to the Mother City.
As the vehicle proceeded through what is still the Afrikaner heartland Mr. Mandela asked for it to stop, then he got out and spoke to white South African farmers who were holding up a banner reading: “Free at last Mr. President”.
It is said to be that encounter which made Mr. Mandela hurriedly adapt his Cape Town speech, which certainly does not read like a speech 27 years in the making.
I never met Nelson Mandela. I have been present at functions which he was attending and at speeches he gave and at the World Cup Final in South Africa in 2010, his last public appearance while alive.
I have made the pilgrimages to Robben Island and to Qunu where Mr. Mandela was buried yesterday. One of my happiest memories is an evening spent talking with Adelaide Tambo, widow of Oliver Tambo, former president of the ANC and Nelson Mandela’s partner in the law firm of Tambo and Mandela.
Attending functions and chairing conferences at South Africa House in London, home of the South African High Commission, always reminds me forcefully that things can change for the better.
Today, fittingly and coincidentally, it is the annual South African holiday known as the Day of Reconciliation.
In South Africa, which I repeat is a deeply religious country, and maybe the rest of the world, there is a sense that it is indeed merely the aged physical being of Mr. Mandela which is no longer with us.
In a difficult world I like to think that the universal appeal of Mr. Mandela is just that, that he appeals to the good that is in all of us.
To ask what now is the future of South Africa is too narrow a question. All countries and societies need to understand the need to forgive.
Rest in peace Nelson Mandela.
My hero lives.