Yesterday, Nelson Mandela, who guided South Africa from the shackles of apartheid to a multi-racial democracy and became an icon of international peace and reconciliation, died at the age of 95.
Throughout his life, he was known as many things: a revolutionary, a prisoner, a philosopher, a president, a Nobel prize winner, and many, many more titles. The impact of his life has touched virtually every life, unknowing or knowing, in the past 20 years.
Out of all the obituaries and recollections of his life that have been circulating in the hours since the world learned of his passing, one that truly touched me and spoke bounds to the peacefulness and humility of Mandela’s character was the story of his meeting with an opposition leader over tea:
In 1993, South African general Constand Viljoen was plotting an Afrikaner guerrilla war against multiracial rule.
So Nelson Mandela invited him over for tea. When Viljoen and three other retired generals arrived at Mandela’s house in Johannesburg, they expected a maid to open the door. Instead a smiling Mandela greeted them, shaking their hands and expressing his delight at seeing them. Then he invited Viljoen to his lounge for a private chat.
“He asked me if I took tea,” Viljoen later told John Carlin, author of the new book Knowing Mandela. “I said yes and he poured me a cup. He asked me if I took milk. I said yes and he poured me milk. Then he asked me if I took sugar with my tea. I said I did and he poured the sugar. All I had to do was stir it!”
Speaking in Viljoen’s language, Afrikaans, Mandela persuaded him that a guerrilla war would lead nowhere. Instead, he urged him to stand for parliament in the multiracial elections. Viljoen left the house purged of warlike thoughts. “Mandela wins over all who meet him,” he told Carlin.
What a good lesson for all of us to learn.