James Commey: Love was the key to a complex man in a complex land

PERHAPS the finest illustration of Nelson Mandela the man came during his presidency. In 1995, he invited Percy Yutar for lunch. The significance? Yutar was the man who prosecuted him in the infamous Rivonia Trial of 1963. It was that trial that sent Mandela to prison for 27 years.

As an Armenian Jew, Yutar had himself suffered anti-Semitism at the hands of the Afrikaners. For that reason he remained for a while a junior state prosecutor and was forbidden from joining the attorney general’s office in Cape Town.

Now, as deputy attorney general of the Transvaal province, he was eager to please his bosses at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria.

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In cross-examination of the defendants, he was relentless and Mandela was convicted. Yutar insisted on the death penalty. Mandela declared that he was prepared to die for the ideal of equality. It was not to be. Judge President Quartus de Wet found a technicality to deviate from the recommended sentence of death.

Some say he did not want to make Mandela a martyr, but the judge knew that the ANC leader did not deserve to die. He sentenced him to life imprisonment. The loophole was that Mandela had been charged with sabotage instead of high treason. The imponderable remains: what would have happened to Mandela and his legacy if he had been hanged?

Back to Mandela. After his release from prison 27 years later, this was not the time for winners and losers. He understood Yutar’s position. After a kosher lunch he held his hands like lawyers do and said: “You were only doing your job.” Mandela was the ultimate peacemaker. And blessed are the peacemakers.

At his presidential inauguration in May 1994, his prison guard was invited as a VIP guest. He subsequently had tea with Betsie Verwoerd, the wife of the architect of apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd.

In a world of political pettiness, and factionalism, he captured the global imagination. And when he walked into a rugby stadium wearing the Springbok rugby jersey of the captain at rugby union World Cup final in 1995, the conversion of his arch-enemies was complete. They chanted “Nelson, Nelson, Nelson”.

Mandela was an idealist, a romantic and a pragmatist all rolled into one. And yet he simply wanted to be like everybody. He wanted no personal glorification but to be judged by his ideals of freedom and justice – a timeless universal ideal. He once said: “I don’t think there is much history that can be said about me. I just want to be remembered as part of that collective.”

He also said “what counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead”.

He had that elusive quality that is uncommon: an effusive generosity of spirit. He was a father, lover, fighter, politician, peacemaker, everyman.

That is why the majority of white South Africans embraced him – and his changes – on his journey from uncompromising revolutionary to unifier. They believed. He saved them from a prison house and it was freedom. But whether it was justice is still being debated.

Prior to the first multi-racial elections in April 1994, there was tension and extreme violence perpetrated by various formations, but whites and blacks walked the streets of Johannesburg without animosity. It is also to the credit of the black population that they agreed to see beyond hatred and revenge. South Africa is a complex and remarkable country.

In his latter years Mandela discussed with his son-in-law, Dr Kwame Amuah, the prospect of death. Mandela said: “How do you write about death when you have not experienced it? Rather write about love, because it is something we all experience.” Love was the compass that gave direction to his project.

Nelson Mandela is said by many to have been in the greatest figure of the 20th century. As he now lies in state ahead of his funeral on Sunday, the world – and South Africa in particular – cannot thank him enough.

*James Commey is a writer and lawyer from South Africa.