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Watching the Watchdog: Long Walk of Prisoner #46664

12/14/2013 11:11 EST | Updated 02/15/2014 05:59 EST

This is a combined and updated version of Knight's three-part tribute to Nelson Mandela published on HuffPost immediately after the former South African president's death. Tim Knight is a communications consultant, broadcast journalism trainer and filmmaker who 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.

It's nearly sixteen years ago, November 14, 1998.

Toronto's enormous SkyDome, cathedral of Our Lords of Sport, slowly fills with children. Forty-five thousand of them, some formal in private school uniforms, most in jeans and sneakers.

They file in, school by school by school. Harassed teachers herd them to roped-off spaces on the brilliant green artificial grass floor, struggle to keep them neatly inside the ropes.

On this day, SkyDome is the world's biggest and most significant classroom.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) cameras turn on. Picture and sound go live throughout Canada and eight thousand miles across the Atlantic, all the way to South Africa.

Music blares. A cart glides in from the side of the arena. Sitting on it are former South African president Nelson Mandela and his new wife, Graca Machel.

The SkyDome goes crazy. Forty-five thousand children, most white, stand and cheer respect for this old black man, this ex-freedom fighter, this ex-convict from a faraway country.

"Mandela" they shout. And "We love you".

The cheers continue for long, long minutes as the cart pushes through the crowd to the stage.

The old black man climbs stiffly off the cart. His wife helps him up the steps to the stage. The roar of the children echoes around the dome. Mandela stands at the microphone beaming, waving, delighted, waiting for the roar to die and the children to sit.

Mandela finally asks in his soft Xhosa accent: "Why is it that over two hundred million children under the age of five are malnourished in this day and age?

"Why do millions of people still not have electricity and clean water when the nations of the world can produce so much wealth?

"Why are people still dying from diseases that modern science can cure?"

He pauses, waves a loving grandfatherly finger at the kids. "All this can be changed if ordinary people like you and me act together."

In a great wave of emotion, the children cheer agreement.

Mandela, 79, is making these kids his equals. They cheer so loud and so long that he puts his notes down, smiles beatifically, waits for quiet again.

When he can be heard, he thanks the children: "You have made me feel like a young man again."

Mandela's words are not particularly stirring in themselves. Any speaker could have said the same things and been politely applauded and just as politely forgotten.

But would huge world audiences -- much less forty-five thousand mostly white Toronto children -- have flocked to listen and applaud words like these from anyone but the legend that is Nelson Mandela?

Then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien speaks: "When you will be my age, you will tell your grandchildren 'I was there when Nelson Mandela came to Canada and Toronto.'"

Music plays. Mandela does his famous "Mandela shuffle", proves again that not all black people have rhythm.

Watching from the stands, I feel tears start. I glance at son Derek sitting next to me. He brushes something off his cheek, sniffs.

I ask Derek what he's thinking. "He tells the truth" says my son. "It's awesome."

"Ecstatic students ... electric ... thrilling", writes the Toronto Star.

The Toronto Sun reports "Overwhelming ... even in the press box there was hardly a dry eye."

MacLean's newsmagazine hopes: "May his magic linger."

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Eight years earlier Prisoner #46664 walks out the gates of Viktor Verster Prison near Cape Town into the hot sun of freedom.

He raises his clenched fist in the African National Congress (ANC) salute. He is smiling, joyous, victorious.

"Amandla" (power) he shouts to the crowd. It's not a threat. It's a promise. "Amandla" and again "Amandla".

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is the world's most famous revolutionary. For twenty-seven long years until this sunny day in 1990 he's a myth, locked up in white South Africa's brutal prisons.

Now, suddenly, he's real. Against all odds alive, healthy and free.

On this day, the man who was myth becomes instant legend.

Millions around the world, many in tears, watch on live TV as Mandela, holding hands with wife Winny, takes the last steps on his very, very long walk to freedom, to national hero and international statesman.

Later this same day, he speaks to the world and a delirious Cape Town crowd: "I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people.

"Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today.

"I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands."

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A few months later, Nelson Mandela is in Dublin to accept the freedom of the city for his fight against apartheid.

I'm there at the same time to train TV journalists at Ireland's public broadcaster, RTÉ. I take the afternoon off to join a long reception line meeting Mandela at Dublin City Hall.

(Thirty years earlier I'm a very young newspaper reporter in South Africa when Mandela, already legendary as the Black Pimpernel, goes underground to fight for his people's freedom. I'm fascinated by his cause, his famous integrity and his courage. But he's betrayed and arrested before I ever get to meet him.)

This day in Dublin, Nelson Mandela shakes my hand.

It's a most peculiar moment.

I look into his eyes, he looks into mine, and somehow I know I'm in the presence of sheer, bloody greatness. Not because of what he's done or had done to him, but simply because of who he is.

I know instinctively that he's a better man than me. I want to follow him. I want him to lead me, inspire me. I want him to call me to some great and noble cause. Some shining, magnificent, impossible mission.

Absurdly, I don't want to disappoint this man I don't know.

He smiles, murmurs something I can't remember afterwards and I have to move along, uncalled.

For now.

In the square outside, Mandela makes a speech about human rights and democracy and five thousand pink and white Irish people clench their fists in the ANC salute and shout "Amandla".

And many weep.

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It's the eve of the 1994 general election in South Africa -- first democratic election in the nation's three hundred and forty-two years.

I'm in Johannesburg leading a team of CBC TV journalism trainers. Our mission is to turn South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) journalists from state broadcasters into public broadcasters.

From fascists to democrats.

Nelson Mandela, new leader of the recently unbanned ANC, comes to the SABC for an election rally.

The black working classes -- mostly drivers and cleaners and messengers and gardeners and cooks and waiters -- abandon their jobs, flow in a mighty river through the dank corridors to the rally in the basement. Standing out in the crowd are occasional white journalists and even a few curious white managers.

For the first time since I get here, the face of the SABC is mostly black, just like the face of the country. No-one of that skin colour has ever before been invited to a South African national election rally, much less been asked for their vote.

Here, in this tide of people, there's no rank, no class, no white skin privilege. Only the excitement of being part of democracy struggling to be born. Only the sweet, sweet smell of that once-so-faraway freedom.

Mandela climbs up on a platform and smiles out at the faces looking up at him, trusting him, needing him. And great waves of hope and love and respect flow back and forth between this man and these people who expect so impossibly much from him.

He looks around the huge basement, raises his fist in the ANC salute, shouts "Amandla".

And suddenly there's a new light and a new truth in the faces of the folk who have served the SABC, this grim peddler of apartheid's obscene lies, for so long.

"Amandla" they chant back to him. "Viva" and "viva ... Mandela ... viva". And "viva Madiba" (his Thembu clan name).

And fists everywhere rise up in salute because now people have hope and nothing excites more than hope.

Mandela is no rabble-rouser. He speaks slowly, deliberately, carefully, like a headmaster rallying the school at morning assembly. He says words the people gathered here want and need to hear.

Words about change and freedom and hope and a new South Africa.

The beast that is apartheid is doomed, he tells the crowd.

"Amandla" and "viva Madiba."

And as he must because he's Madiba, a leader not a demagogue, he warns against expecting too much, too soon. There's a long, hard road ahead, he cautions. Expect no miracles.

"Amandla ... viva Madiba."

And there's a threat, a hint of cold steel, when he warns the white men who run the SABC that the corporation's role as the servile arm of government propaganda is over. That the SABC will serve all the people in a new, democratic, multi-racial South Africa.

The crowd roars "Amandla". And "Amandla" again. And again. Next to me a man in messenger uniform says softly, "it is the truth, man. Madiba speaks truth."

His fist punches the air. Tears run down his cheeks.

"Amandla".

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On May 10, 1994, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, 75, takes the oath of office as the first democratically elected President in the history of South Africa.

It happens at Pretoria's Union Buildings, the place where the evil that is apartheid was conceived and from which it was administered.

Special guests are comrades from the long, bitter years of what South Africans venerate as The Struggle. Sitting with the comrades are Mandela's white former prison guards, powerful symbols of reconciliation.

Also celebrating are one hundred thousand ecstatic South Africans of all colours, three thousand dignitaries from one hundred and sixty-nine nations, and two thousand traditional tribal praise singers.

"Never" promises Mandela "never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another ... let freedom reign."

At the end of the ceremony, white South African Air Force officers salute their new black president with the traditional warplane fly-past. More symbolism. Very important symbolism.

A billion people around the world watch on TV.

I watch.

And weep.

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A couple of years later, His Excellency President Mandela, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Lenin Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, Britain's Order of Merit, honourary citizen of Canada, along with some one hundred other awards and honours, is to make an important speech to the international news media.

Correspondents from the world's most powerful newspapers, magazines and broadcast networks gather together in jovial splendour in the ballroom of Johannesburg's Carlton Hotel.

Excellent South African wines and brandies. Much backslapping and toasting and versions of "... haven't seen you since Saigon/Sarajevo/Mogadishu/ Beijing/Paris/Lubumbashi!"

I'm back in South Africa to do more TV journalism training at the SABC. A colleague from long-ago days on the Sunday Express and I chat idly about the famed and mysterious "Madiba Magic" when I notice people heading toward the elevators, excuse myself, wander over to investigate.

Half a dozen of my very white and very important international colleagues are lining up in formal reception committee mode.

Out of the hotel elevator to their left come four very black, very large, very tough-looking men in tight dark suits and dark, mirrored sunglasses. Like synchronized dancers, they glare left, at a cluster of hotel maids waiting for the service elevator, then right, at the international journalists' reception committee.

Left again. Right again.

His Excellency, the President of South Africa, strolls out of the elevator.

Instead of turning right to the waiting reception committee of very important international journalists, the president of South Africa turns left and, smiling, makes a detour to the maids.

One by one he shakes hands and chats. And one by one the maids curtsey and giggle and try to answer his questions. And curtsey and giggle again.

And it's only when he's finished chatting with the curtseying, giggling Carlton Hotel maids that His Excellency the President of South Africa, turns and walks over to the very important international journalists standing in a line, waiting to greet him.

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It's July 18, 2001, and I'm back in Johannesburg for yet another training workshop with SABC journalists.

This day is former president Nelson Mandela's eighty-third birthday.

The SABC Morning Live crew and I are invited to his Johannesburg home to broadcast early morning birthday celebrations.

It's not early for Mandela, of course. He's already been up since 4.30 a.m. and exercised for an hour. It's a routine he picked up in prison and can't break.

Interviewed by one of the Morning Live 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 prostrate cancer. Again.

After the cameras turn off, Mandela and I talk briefly. I stumble around for the right things to say to this man who almost singlehandedly saves South Africa from a bloody 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 part of Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom.

So I suggest to Mandela that my old friend Morgan Freeman, with whom I once write a never-finished book, is the only actor with the integrity, gravitas, looks and talent to play him in the movie. Mandela smiles, nods, seems to agree without actually saying so. We talk a little more before we shake hands and minders take him off to talk to other birthday greeters.

Eight years later, Morgan Freeman stars brilliantly 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 my old friend Morgan up there on the screen, not Mandela. Anyway, after a couple of minutes, there's no difference.

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 multiracial 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 very first day as president. He has massive problems that have to be handled immediately. It's a matter of sheer survival.

Three powerful pressure groups fight for his attention.

On one side -- the country's 10-million whites, inventers and sole beneficiaries of apartheid. They've designed, controlled and run South Africa's politics and economy for all of three hundred and forty-two years. As an entirely unearned reward, most live far better than Europeans or North Americans. The whites are terrified that the new black majority government will take revenge 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 foreign 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 surely follow fleeing whites out of the country.

And on the third side -- South Africa's thirty-three 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 ANC. Now, as a reward, many expect instant, splendid new lives. A few even believe they'll 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. But 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 that nation's economic survival is more important than anything else. Therefore, his newly elected black government's first priority must be to calm and keep the whites. Thus guaranteeing the nation's financial future stability.

Mandela makes his deal with the devil.

Whites will stay on as economic and business masters, at least for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the black government will run the new nation's politics. It will even pay the billions of dollars of international debt left behind by the corrupt, ousted white rulers.

The deal is 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 white fascism. It's also a grim lesson in political and economic realities and priorities.

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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Now, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela -- Thembu prince, freedom fighter, first president of democratic South Africa and the most honoured person in the entire world -- is dead.

That deal he made with the white South Africans eighteen years ago worked well, at least for a while. Today, South Africa is 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 thirty-four 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 little more than two percent.

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

Zuma's ruling-for-life ANC party runs just about everything in the country showing little respect for democracy, even less for the independence of the courts, the police or the press.

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

No apartheid here. Corruption has become multiracial. Amazing how the prospect of great wealth 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 President Zuma believes that if he can make it to the top with nothing more than a primary school education (ages seven to twelve), 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.

Most ironic of all these grim facts is that since the end of apartheid the country Mandela led to freedom has become economically 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 is on a much longer, stonier and more dangerous road than they ever expected. And it's taking far longer than they or their many friends and well wishers around the world ever predicted.

Considering what's happening to Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela's dream of a rainbow nation, perhaps it was time for him to go.

December 5, 2013, was a good day to die.

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Nelson Mandela, the politician who fathered the 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 has 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.

Nelson Mandela the man was no saint. He loved hanging with celebrities (Spice Girls, Michael Jackson, Prince Charles, Naomi Campbell, Charlize Theron, Robert De Niro, Whoopi Goldberg, Bono etc. etc.), was a womanizer even while married and right up to the end had a fine eye for good-looking women.

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

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 spilling oceans of blood 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 a mostly-respected, stable member of the family of nations.

In the years after he gave up the presidency and before he died, the man 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 twenty-seven years locked up in apartheid's brutal prisons.

"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 is over.

He's finally free, buried in the thin, red soil of Qunu where he was born.

How better to salute the great man who was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela than to quote the great playwright:

"Now cracks a noble heart.

Good-night, sweet prince;

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

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Knight is the author of Storytelling And The Anima Factor.