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Long Walk of Prisoner #46664 Part 3: Now Cracks a Noble Heart

12/09/2013 01:57 EST | Updated 02/08/2014 05:59 EST

This is the final instalment of Tim Knight's three-part tribute to the late Nelson Mandela. Read part 1 here and part 2 here. Tim Knight writes the regular media column, Watching the Watchdog, for HuffPost Canada.

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Knight with Nelson Mandela at the former South African president's 81st birthday celebration. The picture was taken outside the house where Mandela died last week. Johannesburg, July 18, 2001.

July 18, 2001, is former president Nelson Mandela's 83rd birthday.

I'm in Johannesburg training South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) journalists. So I'm invited to join an SABC crew broadcasting the early morning celebrations.

It's not early for Mandela, of course. He's already been up since 4.30 and exercised for an hour. It's a routine he picked up as Prisoner #46664 during 27 years in South African's brutal jails and can't break.

Interviewed by one of the SABC anchors, he's charming, courteous and generous. But there's always that hint of steel, particularly when his causes -- racism, children, poverty -- come up.

Asked about his health, he says he's doing fine, doesn't mention that he's just been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Again.

After the cameras turn off, Mandela and I talk briefly. I mention that we met once before when he accepted the freedom of the city of Dublin, and I stumble around for the right things to say to this man who almost singlehandedly saves South Africa from a race war.

What do you say to the person you admire most in all the world?

Fortunately, there's talk that a Hollywood producer is in pre-production for a movie based on Mandela's autobiography Long Walk To Freedom.

So I suggest to Mandela that my old friend Morgan Freeman, with whom I once wrote a never-finished book, is the only actor with the integrity, gravitas, looks and talent to play him in the movie. Mandela smiles, nods, asks a few questions about Morgan, seems to agree. We talk a little more before he shakes my hand and aides take him off to greet other birthday well wishers.

Eight years later, Morgan is brilliant as Nelson Mandela in Invictus ("I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul"). Watching, I keep having to remind myself that it's Morgan up there on the screen, not Mandela.

I can't take credit, I know. But I like to think I had something to do with this piece of perfect casting.

Back at the birthday party, Mandela pretends he's surprised to find a children's choir on the steps outside his house. He beams while the choir sings "Happy birthday Mr. Mandela ... may all your dreams come true ..."

"I'm so happy to see you ..." he tells the children, and asks if he can shake hands with each of them "because it would make my day."

Thrilled, the children make Mandela's day.

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Flashback to May 10, 1994, Mandela's first day as president of South Africa. He has massive problems that have to be handled immediately. It's a matter of everyone's survival.

Three powerful pressure groups fight for his attention.

On one side -- the country's 10-million whites, inventors and sole beneficiaries of apartheid.

They've designed, controlled and run South Africa's politics and economy for all of 342 years. As an entirely unearned reward, they live far better than most Europeans or North Americans. The whites are terrified that the new black majority government will take revenge on them for the centuries of white oppression, racism and brutality.

Many plan to emigrate. If enough whites leave, South Africa will surely fall apart.

In the centre -- the foreign investors. They fear black rule just as much as the whites who benefited from apartheid for so very long. The investors have to be convinced that the new government will be suitably capitalistic and support the sometimes dubious benefits of international free trade.

If the investors aren't convinced, their money will follow fleeing whites out of the country.

And on the third side -- South Africa's 33 million blacks. Almost all live in miserable slums or desperately poor rural villages. Most have no jobs, decent housing or schools. No electricity. No running water.

The huge majority of blacks, of course, support and vote for Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) and now, as a reward, expect instant, splendid new lives. A few expect to simply swap jobs, houses, salaries (even spouses) with whites.

Mandela has incredibly urgent, difficult and dangerous choices to make. He obviously can't satisfy everyone. And he knows that life for black people will become even poorer, nastier, brutish and short if the whites leave and the economy collapses.

He decides. The nation's economic survival is more important than anything else. Therefore, his government's first priority must be to calm and keep the whites. Which will guarantee the investors' financial stability.

So Mandela makes his deal with the devil -- the black government will run the new nation's politics while whites stay on as economic and business masters, at least for the immediate future.

The deal is a grim lesson in political and economic realities and priorities. It's also an extraordinary example of generosity on the part of a leader and a people who have suffered so long and are only newly liberated from fascism.

In effect, the new government, along with most black South Africans, is saying to the whites and investors -- this is no time for revenge. We'll forget the past and welcome you to share this rich and lovely land with us.

In return, you must accept our present and our future.

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Eighteen years later, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Thembu prince, first president of democratic South Africa, ex-terrorist, ex-freedom fighter, ex-convict and the most honoured person in the entire world, is dead.

That deal he makes with the white South Africans so long ago works well, but only for a while. Today, the country is still a middle-income, emerging market with well-developed financial, legal, communications, energy and transport sectors. But foreign investment is drying up and signs of decay are all around.

Recent violence and wildcat strikes in the mines -- upon which so much of South Africa's economy is based -- and the police massacre of 34 protesters at the Marikana platinum mine, have severely damaged the country's internal confidence and external reputation.

The economy -- which once had a healthy annual growth rate around five percent -- is now at barely two percent.

The country has become, in effect, a one-party state under an increasingly corrupt, incompetent and polygamous president Jacob Zuma (he of the four wives, one divorce, 20 children and a new $27-million palace in his rural village).

Zuma's ruling-for-eternity ANC party runs just about everything in the country with little respect for democracy or the independence of the courts, the police and the press.

On the fringe of that government and enormously influential in its deliberations, is a small, voracious alliance of obscenely rich plutocrats -- both black and white -- who rely on their political connections to bleed the newish nation of its wealth, its dignity and its future.

Corruption is no longer just a white disease. It's become multiracial. Amazing how the prospect of great riches can unite longtime political foes in a common cause!

Over the past few years, better housing and social services for millions of poor blacks have finally been delivered. But not nearly enough. Huge, rancid slums still surround most cities and towns.

South Africa's black schools still rank among the world's worst. It's as if Zuma believes that if he can make it to the top with nothing more than a primary school education (ages 7 -- 12), anyone can.

The country is plagued by endemic poverty. Nearly half its people are unemployed and virtually unemployable. HIV/AIDS and crime rates are among the highest in the world.

Saddest and most ironic of all these grim facts is that since the end of apartheid, the country Mandela led to freedom has become less, not more, equal. The gap between rich (mostly white) and poor (almost entirely black) is among the widest in the world.

And growing.

For most South Africans, that long walk to freedom Mandela wrote about is on a much longer, stonier and more dangerous road than they ever expected. And it's taking far more time than their well wishers around the world ever predicted.

Considering what's happening to his dream of a new, democratic and rainbow nation, maybe it's best that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has gone.

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Mandela, the politician who fathered a new South Africa, has survived all criticism. Mostly because of his exceptional leadership skills -- his unique blend of humanity, integrity, skill, courage, stubbornness and pragmatism.

But also because the world understood that a great leader sometimes has to make agonizing choices, often between heart and head.

Mandela's only choice, as he likely saw it, was to choose head over heart and seek the greatest good for the greatest number of his people.

Then stand by his decision, whatever the fallout.

Mandela, the man, wasn't perfect. He loved hanging with celebrities (Spice Girls, Michael Jackson, Prince Charles, Naomi Campbell, Charlize Theron, Robert De Niro, Whoopi Goldberg, Bono etc., etc.), and had a fine eye for good-looking women.

He confessed as much in his memoir Conversations With Myself: "I was never [a saint], even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying."

When pushed, for all his obvious humanity, humility and integrity, he could be an arrogant, authoritarian dictator.

He was famous for taking forever to make decisions. When he did, nothing less than a tsunami could change his mind.

His stubbornness -- some called it pigheaded rigidity -- while entirely suited to a traditional Thembu prince, sometimes harmed his own causes and hugely frustrated colleagues.

Indeed, it took the AIDS death of his son, Makgahto, to make him finally respond to the AIDS crisis which was killing thousands of his people.

Even so, it was this same Mandela stubbornness that was largely responsible for destroying apartheid and birthing democracy without the horrors of a race war in the cities, the townships and the veldt of his beloved country.

And it was Mandela's stubbornness, combined with his famous ability to charm even his most rigid opponents, that transformed South Africa from a despised pariah into an internationally respected, economically stable member of the family of nations.

In the years after he gave up the presidency and before he died, Mandela seemed entirely at peace with himself. He radiated the message: "I did my duty. I gave everything I had. I could do no more."

Mark Twain sums up Mandela's effect on those who, like me, were truly honoured to meet him: "The really great make you feel that you, too, can become great."

In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela explained his philosophical generosity, developed over those 27 years in prison.

"It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black. I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed."

Prisoner #46664's long walk to freedom is over.

No better way to salute Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela than to quote the bard who wrote with such insight about other great men:

"Now cracks a noble heart.

Good-night, sweet prince;

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

This concludes Tim Knight's three-part tribute to Nelson Mandela.

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