Saying Goodbye to Mandela

Mandela, Eileen and familyNo one is born hating another because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.

Nelson Mandela


How do you part with love? Love never leaves, but the leader who embodied it will be missed by the world. I want reflect on what Nelson Mandela meant to me.

The picture above was taken after an hour with him at his office in Johannesburg in 2008. Nelson Mandela had just turned 90. My husband, Paul, joined me along with our sons, Adam and Danny, who were then 22 and 20, respectively. My sister Peggy had made the arrangements, as she knew Madiba from her anti-poverty work. She told me to call him Madiba, as a sign of respect.

From the moment we entered the room I knew we were in the presence of a man without fear. He sat in his armchair, with his back to the door. I thought it unusual not to face the people entering, yet he seemed completely at ease. He greeted us with an outstretched hand and offered us something to drink. We accepted water and sat down in chairs around him. I spoke first: “My sister Peggy and my father send their love.”

“Yaas.” He said in his deep, resonant voice. “I am very fond of your sister and your father. How is your father?”

I told him he was very well. My dad is three years older than Madiba but he considers him one of his heroes. I told him this.

“Yaas. Yaas,” he said thoughtfully, shaking his head in the affirmative. His voice was soft but gravelly.

We had come prepared with questions. I went first: “Madiba, what is one thing you have learned in your life that you would like to share with our sons?”

He thought a minute. “It is never only one person who makes change and it is important to remember that. It is always a collective effort with one person being put at the head of the pack. One person is necessarily more visible but there are many others who are of equal importance and influence to the cause.”

Today, as I think back on that meeting, I realize he was right. It is never only one person, but it takes one person to initiate change. Nelson Mandela taught the world a lesson in love. Despite 27 years in prison, he was not bitter, for he claimed it helped him to end apartheid.

Here’s what I learned from Madiba: Treat others with respect and love, despite any feelings they project onto you, and you will expand the abundance of love in the world. Love has the capacity to heal some of the deepest wounds.

(For more about my meeting with Mandela, read “Out of the Canyon, p. 288”)

What impact (even from afar) did Nelson Mandela make on your life?

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8 Responses to Saying Goodbye to Mandela

  1. Alice says:

    I remember this from reading your book, it made me teary then and it makes me teary now. Wonderful post, Eileen.

  2. Rebecca Weil says:

    Thank you, Eileen, it is beautiful to hear his reflections
    . I am just about to read his autobiography.

  3. joaneee says:

    Eileen . . I truly believe that life is made up in moments — the snapshots of life that stand out over all others. And being with family only in the presence of Mandela has to stand high for each of you. Like you, I love quotations . . . . the small sentences that remain deep and forever, ever ready to be pulled up in time of need. Perhaps my favorite of his: It always seems impossible until it is done. And another: Nothing is only Black and White.

    The man – in so many ways – stood alone, unlike any other in the ups and downs of the life he was given, but never giving up . . . and sharp enough in his 90s to speak to you like an elder statesman. More than anything, I believe that, in meeting him, you have given your sons the most lasting permanent gift that will stand them in good stead with the memories as they saw them at an impressionable age.

    Once again, you have been able to bring a time and a man to life in a way that your reader felt she was along.

    • I hope you are right about the gift to my sons, Joan. My boys had not read his book before they met him. I took copious “crib notes” from my own reading from “A Long Walk to Freedom,” and they read those beforehand, but they really had no idea how great a man he was until they were in his presence. I like to think that Mandela has become part of their fabric now. I believe that as parents we give our children all the experiences we can. What they do with it is up to them, but meeting powerful role models and inspirational leaders – at any level – is a good thing. I am proud of how my sons are using their lives to serve others, and I’m glad I could “bring you along” as well.

  4. Don Hooper says:

    Eileen, you exemplify walking the talk of goodwill, generously, and commitment to positive change. I am touched by your ability to reach out, and use every occasion as an opportunity to teach and to spread love and inclusion. What a gift for Adam + Danny to have such ecumenical, embracing parents as you and Paul. And for them to be with you to experience this Lion in his Lair.
    I loved the comments above by Alice, Rebecca, and Joaneee.
    It is so appropriate that you got this personal time with Madiba, who inspired so many of us to act on our values of inclusive social, economic and environmental justice. Thank you for sharing this gorgeous glimpse of gravely-voiced, reclining, thoughtful, unfearful, Ninety-year-old World-shaker Mandela.
    As a late-1960’s Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana, I made my maiden speech on the Vermont House floor to divest our public funds from businesses making money in Apartheid South Africa. Mandela’s Rivonia Trial “No Easy Walk to Freedom” speech inspired our commitment to WIN on divestment. Which we did. And Divestment, which coupled with the threat of additional sanctions and a worldwide recession, starved So Africa of the capital it needed for growth. Apartheid collapsed in 1990. How Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison with such a generous heart and strategic mind is beyond me. You have offered us a beautiful snapshot of a meaningful encounter. Thank you. Don Hooper

  5. Don, you continue to amaze me with the things you have accomplished, and this one tops them all. Thank you for your powers of persuasion on the Vermont House floor in the late 1960’s. You were one of the many levers needed to create change. I think we can too often lapse into believing our individual actions don’t matter. But when there are enough of us working together, real change is possible. Thank you for your inspiration, persuasion and hard work.

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