MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Today we are hearing a very great deal about how Nelson Mandela inspired many to embrace his vision of a better world. He also inspired a new generation of political leaders around the world, but certainly on his home continent of Africa. The president of Ghana, John Dramani Mahama, wrote about this for the New York Times and he is with us now. Mr. President, thank you so much for speaking with us. Welcome back to the program.
PRESIDENT JOHN DRAMANI MAHAMA: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: You were five years old when Nelson Mandela became a political prisoner. And yet, you wrote about how you grew up idolizing him. What do you remember of what you knew about him when you were growing up?
MAHAMA: As a young child in primary school, our country had been involved in the liberation struggle that had become the headquarters of freedom fighters in Africa. And so on television and other places we kept hearing discussions on the liberation of the continent. It was only until I got to secondary school that I really understood the impact of Mandela. He had been incarcerated since I was five in primary school, but in secondary school we understood his struggle. I mean, this was a man who had dreamed of a society in which everybody would have equal opportunity.
MARTIN: You became a member of an activist group in the '70s, and you said that Mandela was our idol. What was it about him that resonated with you at that time?
MAHAMA: A person who lived by principle and was willing to sacrifice everything for principle was somebody that we admired, and somebody who was willing to fight for a better life, not to suffer the discomfort of imprisonment for 27 years, and was willing to do it for a better life for his people.
MARTIN: And then when he was released in prison in 1990, what was it that struck you when he emerged?
MAHAMA: He was a much different man from the picture that had stuck in my mind. The picture that we had of him was a young man with bushy afro hair with a parting on his hair. The man who came out of prison was much older, dignified, but you could see his spirit wasn't broken. And after going through such indignity and such cruelty, you'd think that somebody would come out with bitterness and rage, but he was a man who came out of prison - he was walking with a lot of dignity with Winnie Mandela. The whole world was watching and he raised his fist, you know, in defiance. And showed that, look, I'm going to continue to fight for my people. And then he exposed it when he taught us forgiveness, that he forgave everything. He asked everybody who lived in South Africa to share their opportunity that the country had to offer.
MARTIN: Did you want to see more anger?
MAHAMA: As a young man, our role models were people who were willing to stand up and fight. And so we admired Che Guevara, we admired the Mau Mau fighters in Kenya. But other freedom fighters like Gandhi and Mandela cast the whole issue in a different light. These are people who have used forgiveness and peace, and calling on people to come together as a very powerful tool for achieving the same objective. And so I think that in the fight for freedom and in the fight for liberation of the continent, that is (unintelligible) colonialism, in the fight to ensure economic prosperity for our people and a decent and dignified life, I think that the instruments of Gandhi and Mandela are very relevant at this time.
MARTIN: As the head of state yourself, as a president of a great nation yourself, what do you think is the most important thing about leadership that you learned from him?
MAHAMA: I learned three things. One, to persevere in whatever struggle you're involved in. Two, to learn to forgive. And then three, a lesson that I learned - not only from Mandela but from my father, is to leave when the applause is the loudest.
MARTIN: When you actually first met Mr. Mandela in Cape Town, you were a member of parliament, you were a minister of communications. Your first time there, you were on your way to your hotel room and you say that he stepped out of the elevator and you were speechless.
MAHAMA: It was a shocking moment. And I still remember it vividly. And we had gone out with a few friends in the night and I was going back to my hotel room and I was standing just alone in front of the lift. And it opens, and lo and behold, President Mandela walks out accompanied by two other people. I mean, this was the man I had been craving to see and I had idolized for a long time. And when the moment came, I was speechless. I was frozen. He nodded in my direction. I couldn't even nod back. And he just walked past me and went straight into his car and drove off. It wasn't so much later that I had the opportunity to meet him again when I was a member of the South African parliament.
MARTIN: And presumably, you could speak then, right? You found your tongue then, right?
MAHAMA: I found my tongue then.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, what would you wish us to remember about Nelson Mandela?
MAHAMA: The man transcends time, one of the greatest Africans who ever lived. Indeed, when news of his death came, I found it difficult to process because this is a man who had confronted many challenges and overcome them, and even early this year when it was thought that, I mean, he was on his last leg, he was dying - even death, he confronted death and overcame death again, and so his name will printed in letters of gold in the history of the liberation struggle and in the history of Africa.
MARTIN: John Dramani Mahama is the president of Ghana. We reached him in Paris, France - where he is attending meetings. Mr. President, thank you so much for speaking with us. Thank you for taking the time.
MAHAMA: Thank you, Michel.
MARTIN: As we continue today's program, looking at the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela, we are also on Twitter, we're using the hashtag #NPRblacksintech. Here's what some of our tech contributors have been tweeting as they reflect on the passing of South Africa's former president. Jewell Sparks in San Francisco tweets, Nelson Mandela said it best, quote, education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world, unquote. Mike Street from New York, quoting Mandela tweets, it always seems impossible until it's done. Follow our Twitter handle, @TellMeMoreNPR, throughout the day for more reactions from around the country and around the world. Coming up, South Africa's ambassador to the United States on Mandela's legacy. That's ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.