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'One of the most remarkable people'

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: December 07, 2013

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So many millions of words have been written about Nelson Mandela, and so many more millions are surely yet to be written, that it's verging on the impossible to find much new to say about a man whom many people seriously regard as eligible for sainthood.

Indeed, on Thursday, December 5, within hours of his death aged 95, tributes began flooding in from all over the world, and mourners gathered in the streets outside his home in Johannesburg.

Whatever words are used, however, their ultimate purpose and conclusion is the same – that Mandela was a true hero of his time and, while his loss is great, his legacy is even greater.

One of the most astonishing things about this astonishing man is the way that his critics suddenly changed their tune after his release from in prison.

Mandela first went on trial in the late Fifties for treason, a few years after he'd qualified as a lawyer and played a part in setting up South Africa's first black law firm.

He was acquitted, but in early 1960, the police had killed 69 protesters in Sharpeville and, fearing retaliation, the government had banned the African National Congress (ANC). The organisation formed a military wing, led by Mandela.

Two years on, he was arrested again, this time for attempting to leave the country illegally and incitement to strike. While in prison, along with seven others, he was charged with sabotage and, in 1964, handed a life sentence.

It was probably at this point that he was in the greatest peril of facing execution.

For the first 18 years of his imprisonment, he was incarcerated in Robben Island, and then in Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town. As time went on, pressure mounted for an end to the apartheid regime. In 1990, President FW de Klerk finally lifted the ban on the ANC and, that same year, in the February, after 27 years in prison, Mandela was freed.

Not everybody had supported the campaign for his release. In fact, some critics had regarded him as little more than an anti-apartheid terrorist who was lucky to escape the gallows in his youth.

But they changed their tune when, on television, they watched live coverage of he and his wife, Winnie, greeting cheering crowds. From that day on, Mandela displayed not a shred of bitterness or resentment towards those responsible for throwing him into jail.

It was that absence, on his part, of any malign thoughts which suddenly persuaded those who, until that point, had vilified him, that here was a great man.

It was incredible that Mandela, who had been shut off from the world for virtually half a lifetime, should emerge totally devoid of self-pity or rancour. His unmistakable quavery voice may have belied his unquenchable appetite finally to kill off apartheid which, at the time of his release, was already in its death throes. His ardour had not diminished one iota.

It was President F W de Klerk who'd ordered his release, a step towards the dismantling of apartheid. His decision was probably not made in the interests of humanity, but more likely because he and his colleagues feared mass unrest in South Africa, and opprobrium abroad, if Mandela had died in prison.

Once free, Mandela, by now in his early 70s, embarked on a series of nationwide speeches.

He and President F W de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 and, the following year, in a true mark of change for South Africa, for the first time ever people of any race were permitted to vote in democratic elections.

Mandela became the nation's first black president. He helped to establish a constitution which was acceptable (although not always with open arms) to every political group in the country except the most extreme Afrikaners.

In the space of four years, he managed to achieve a peaceful transition to multicultural rule, something which even his sternest critics had to accept.

As the years went on, as well as changing history in his own country, Mandela became a figure of great fondness, all across the world. Pomposity and bombast were foreign to his nature. He delivered his speeches in plain, straightforward language and never resorted to histrionics, and yet he could sway an audience better than any politician I have ever seen.

The acclaim – verging on adoration – which he enjoyed was enhanced by his salty wit and sense of humour.

Once he said, in reference to his own position: "In our country, you have to go to prison first, and then become president."

And when, about a decade ago, he visited Westminster to address the Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall, he told the then Speaker, Betty Boothroyd: "When I enter the pearly gates, the first thing I will do is join the local branch of the African National Congress."

It was on that same visit that Mandela, who by then was a little shaky on his legs, was told in advance to be extremely careful about descending the steps in Westminster Hall. His response was to head there secretly at 6am to see for himself where the perils lay. In the end, in front of the huge audience, Mandela gingerly descended the steps hand-in-hand with Boothroyd – so a calamity was averted.

World leaders would fall over each other to be seen in his company. They concluded that a photograph of a politician shaking hands with Mandela and included in future general election literature was a sure-fire vote-winner.

Indeed, one of the first things that David Cameron did on being elected Conservative Party leader was to fly to South Africa seemingly for no other purpose than to have his photograph taken with Mandela. This explanation for this there-and-back trip has never been denied. And I once witnessed Alastair Campbell, who was Tony Blair's spin doctor, loudly rebuking some people who started to chat during a Mandela speech.

Mandela's smile was rarely absent from his face. But there were occasions when it would disappear, if only temporarily.

One such occasion was when he described George W Bush as "a president who can't think properly", or Tony Blair as "the United States foreign minister".

It is difficult to think of anybody, politician or otherwise, who had greater moral authority in the 20th century, with the possible exception of Mahatma Gandhi.

Nelson Mandela will go down in history as one of the most remarkable people ever to have set foot on the planet. He was, without doubt, the saviour of South Africa and a beacon of hope to millions of people around the world. His memory is indelible.

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