Mandela's Graceful Departure A Hallmark Of His Presidency

Robert Siegel talks with John Matisonn, who was NPR's southern Africa correspondent from 1986 to 1991, about Nelson Mandela's unusually generous departure from power. He served one term, then retired — bucking a trend common among many well-known African leaders.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

These days, as Nelson Mandela lies in the hospital, there are many remembrances of his great resolve and his insistence as president on reconciliation, not recrimination. There's one feature, though, of Mandela's leadership that may be overlooked because it's about what he did not do: He did not hold on to power as greedily as his popularity might have permitted. In 1999, he stepped down from the presidency.

John Matisonn was our correspondent in South Africa when Nelson Mandela came out of prison, and he later worked in the Mandela administration. He joins us now from Cape Town. Welcome once again to the program, John.

JOHN MATISONN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And could Nelson Mandela have chosen to be president for life if that's what he'd wanted?

MATISONN: Not for life. I mean, we have a very good constitution. It allows two terms, but he chose to go after one term. Our term is five years. He served one five-year term, and then he voluntarily stepped down.

SIEGEL: How important was that decision on the part of this man, who is a national - a world hero, to step down from the presidency?

MATISONN: Well, you know, Robert, the amazing thing when I was in his administration, I would meet with counterparts from other parts of Africa, and they would say very emotionally, he deserved a second Nobel Prize for Peace for stepping down because of the example it set in Africa, because so many people in Africa, even in government, are so frustrated that their leaders never step down. Once they get in, they stay. And he was very clear about the constitutional state he wanted to set up and be a precedent for.

SIEGEL: This, though, was beyond the constitutional requirement. This was a statement that life wasn't all about holding on to power.

MATISONN: Exactly. He wanted to leave a functioning democracy, not stay in office as long as he could. He - I think he always had a very good understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses. He wanted to see a younger generation of people sort of steeped in modern economies running the place, and he wanted to step back and be a visible example of stepping back and letting it happen.

SIEGEL: You told me years ago about something Mandela did that - it was before his retirement and perhaps foreshadowed his retirement. The vice president of South Africa had been his main political rival, the Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and President Mandela was traveling out of the country. What happened?

MATISONN: Well, he had called in Chief Buthelezi and said, I want you to be acting president while I'm away. And, of course, it was, to some extent, oddly a symbolic act, but it blew Buthelezi away. He was so impressed with it, and he spoke for years after how he was so scared he might make a mistake or something. But it showed real confidence on Mandela's part and was just another of many, many typical examples of his belief in reconciliation.

SIEGEL: You mentioned the other Africans who would remark on the second Nobel Prize that Nelson Mandela deserved for leaving office. Is there any indication that he inspired any of them to leave office voluntarily?

MATISONN: Well, there is a slight improvement in Africa. There are more democratic states now than there used to be, and there are some long-standing presidents stepping down, but then there are quite a number who are not. I think there is a change in mood to a degree. The African Union, for instance, is much stronger than its predecessor, the Organization of African Union, in calling on people to adhere to constitutional term limits, but it's still a work in progress.

SIEGEL: Having covered Mandela yourself for so long and having worked in, I guess, in the equivalent of the FCC there in his government, is there something else about him right now that's the most striking and powerful memory for you?

MATISONN: Well, you know, there are so many, Robert. But the one thing I would say is that people should appreciate the sophistication of the man. You know, he was born in a hut on a dung, manure floor, and yet he was constantly able to change himself and grow and develop, great believer in education, but in the sense that he studied law because he thought it could help people. Then he studied civil disobedience, you know, Tolstoy and Gandhi. And then he turned to military, and he started studying from Clausewitz. And then he studied Afrikaans, the language of the oppressors, so he could communicate with them. He was constantly growing and that leads to the final thing, which, of course, is such news in America this week, which is gay rights and gay marriage.

President Mandela supported gay rights and gay marriage from 1994 when he became president. And that's a couple of decades before any other head of government or head of state in the Western world. So he was really ahead of his time and continued to be.

SIEGEL: John Matisonn in Cape Town, thank you very much for talking with us.

MATISONN: My pleasure, Robert.

SIEGEL: John Matisonn, formerly of NPR News, is writing a book about South Africa, "Before and After Apartheid."

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Reporting from war zones is fraught with danger, so why do journalists do it? NPR's Kelly McEvers examines that question in a new audio documentary. Tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION, she'll speak with Lynn Neary about her "Diary of a Bad Year: A War Correspondent's Dilemma."

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