As I stood in Parliament this week to deliver a tribute to my country’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, I felt the weight of history in the making.
I had felt this before, when Inkosi Albert Luthuli passed away, and I was asked by the Luthuli family to deliver his funeral oration at Groutville Mission. Inkosi Luthuli was my mentor and South Africa’s first black Nobel laureate. He was also president of the African National Congress (ANC).
Now South Africa is mourning the death of another Nobel laureate, another president of the ANC and another man whose friendship influenced my life.
This has been a deeply emotional week. Following the official memorial service, I saw the body lying in state and spent time with Mr. Mandela’s widow, Graca Machel, reminiscing over my long friendship with her husband, which began long before their marriage.
I first met Mr. Mandela in the early 1950s, through Walter Sisulu, the secretary-general of the ANC. It so happened that Mr. Mandela was a friend of my wife’s family. At the time, he had a law firm in downtown Johannesburg in partnership with Oliver Tambo.
From the beginning, I perceived in Mr. Mandela a sense of urgency in almost everything he did, as though there was just not enough time to accomplish all he had in mind, or as though there was no time to waste in achieving it. There was always a dignified air about him, but always that underlying sense of urgency.
Mr. Mandela was 10 years older than me, but we were of the same generation, living in the same political and social milieu. He was a dapper young man, full of passion and promise. Over dinners in his home, we discussed sports, music, family and, always, politics.
Ten years later, I listened as Mr. Mandela delivered his iconic statement during the Rivonia Trial — the trial that ended in his sentence of 27 years in prison. The ideal of a democratic and free society, he said, was one for which he lived and was prepared to die.
Nelson Mandela made an unfathomable sacrifice for his country. Through this sacrifice, he taught us that ultimate liberation can only be accomplished by liberating the oppressed as well as the oppressor. I was in agreement with him on that. But it is no secret that, on several other matters, we could not agree.
Within the liberation struggle, consensus was the rarest commodity. While we all agreed on the most important issue, that apartheid had to go, we differed on how to kill the beast.
The rift that opened between the Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC’s mission-in-exile in October 1979 could somehow not be bridged. During a days-long meeting in London, Inkatha steadfastly refused to engage in the armed struggle or promote economic sanctions, advocating instead a multi-strategy approach.
But the ANC responded by launching what would become a decades-long campaign of vilification that pitted our parties against one another, with terrible and tragic results.
Mr. Mandela himself maintained his integrity. Years after the 1986 visit of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group to Robben Island, Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo recounted to me how Mr. Mandela told them, “Buthelezi is a freedom fighter in his own right.” In 2002, Mandela publicly admitted: “We have used every ammunition to destroy Buthelezi, but we failed. And he is still there. He is a formidable survivor.”
Throughout all this, I held more “Free Mandela” rallies than anyone else in South Africa, and quoted Mr. Mandela in public, which was illegal and dangerous. When the Nationalist government eventually approached me to enter bilateral negotiations, I refused, demanding that all parties be able to come to the negotiating table.
Thus, when President F. W. de Klerk announced Mr. Mandela’s imminent release, on Feb. 2, 1990, he acknowledged that it was I who had helped him reach this decision.