By Tom Plate
Moral stature is obviously a rare quality. So when it is very apparent and right in front of you, hitting you between the eyes without any ambiguity, it is unforgettable even as a transitory presence, and especially unforgettable due to its almost invariable absence.
On two occasions for certain, I can say I felt that special burst in a way that I knew was no apparition or deception. This was the two and only two times I had met Nelson Mandela.
One was in Los Angeles when I was an editor at The Los Angeles Times. And the other was when I was attending a World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland, as an op-ed columnist for that newspaper. These took place in the nineties, the decade in Mandela’s life that began, in February 1990, with the African National Congress leader’s release from long political imprisonment.
By 1991, when Mandela addressed a plenary session in the WEF’s main hall, he was then a legend, and in that audience were the sinfully rich and successful who had heard every slick speech that could possibly be manufactured. But they had not heard anything like him. It was not just the ineffable quality of his simple and direct language on the subject of the deeply spiritually corrosive and spiteful effect of human poverty that caught the ear of everyone in the room, not one of them remotely poor. It was the luminous spirit behind the timber of the voice of a man who had been closeted for 27 years in a dark prison by a white racist government that had lost its soul.
No one in that great hall in Davos had suffered anything remotely as demoralizing in their life and had emerged from it with such spirit and global impact; and thus everyone at that conference knew that, no matter how many companies they had started up or how much stuff they had sold or even invented, they were simply not on his level and could never hope to be.
But Mandela’s own persona was quietly elegant. His was a charisma not of flamboyance but of the deep inner strength that seems to come only from true suffering. In Los Angeles in 1990, not long after his release from the exhausting prison stretch, he met with a handful of us Los Angeles Times staffers in his hotel room, where he was resting after a virtual riot of fundraising meetings and speeches the day before.
Then only 71 years of age, he was clearly fatigued, in fact recovering from another bit of surgery, but in sitting with us and talking hopefully about his country of South Africa, he filled the room with a special sense of destiny even after enduring some of the worst punishment we humans are capable of inflicting on another.
Being with him then made you wonder about how you would have handled such imprisonment. Surely not so well, eh? Surely not emerging from prison, putting yourself back together quickly and proceeding to negotiate with the enemy to rebuild and indeed recreate your country? Surely this is hard for mere humans to do, right?
Sitting next to him in that hotel room had to fill you with awe. Why is he so different? What makes him so great? Why can’t I be more like him? Is the distance between him and the rest of us the huge difference between something that is just hard to describe and – well – the mere mortal?
At the university where I teach – Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles – many of the students are not Catholic or even particularly religious. But historically the university was founded by Jesuits and evolved on the basis that no education without a spiritual or philosophical perspective can offer a complete education to the individual. And though no Catholic course is required of any student, there is a bit of the Jesuit spirit that infuses the entire atmosphere. And I find this not stultifying but elevating, because this somehow adds a special dimension to the expectation of a proper education.
Even the lexicology of this kind of expansive education is helpful in this context, because Catholics have a word for very special people who spend their time on earth doing very special things. They are called a saint. And Mandela, though he would be the first to argue sincerely that he wasn’t one, in fact was. Can there be any doubt?
Tom Plate, Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, is an author of the ‘Giants of Asia’ book series.