Mandela formed impressions from an early age

Former South African president Nelson Mandela at the

Former South African president Nelson Mandela at the Mandela foundation in Johannesburg during a meeting with a group of American and South African students as part of a series of activities leading to Mandela Day on July 18. (June 2, 2009) (Credit: AP)

I was in fourth grade when apartheid was the class lesson. That's when a classmate pushed a black-and-white film strip about South Africa through a projector and had his guest speaker -- time has erased both names, alas -- explain the racial classification system and how it worked.

We'd each been assigned an African country for geography and tasked with learning everything we could and, over a series of weeks, delivering it back in a report to the class.

Some schoolmates returned with colorfully garbed visitors from embassies, one of the many perks of growing up in Washington, D.C.


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Others came back with travel brochures, crafts, musical instruments and exotic foods, including one classmate who offered up what he swore were chocolate-covered insects.

But it's that long-ago report on South Africa that comes flooding back in the wake of Nelson Mandela's death -- a lesson that ended with a visitor, after cursory inspection of our skin colors, hair textures and even the curl of some of our noses, matter-of-factly telling some of us exactly how we would be classified if we lived in South Africa.

I believe that was in 1964. Mandela would have been imprisoned two years by then.

As we students grew older, we were assigned to read "Cry the Beloved Country," the 1948 novel on apartheid by Alan Paton. By high school, "Free Mandela" graffiti seemed to begin sprouting everywhere.

In college, my part-time job included writing lead-ins for a news radio network about ongoing violence in South Africa. One big story was the 1977 murder of student leader Steve Biko.

Mandela would have been imprisoned 15 years by then.

By the 1980s, many of us were, in quick succession, reading James A. Michener's history of South Africa, "The Covenant"; listening to Peter Gabriel's haunting "Biko" and Steven Van Zandt's protest song "Sun City" and watching Denzel Washington portray Biko in Richard Attenborough's "Cry Freedom."

Mandela would have been imprisoned 25 years when the film was released -- all of that time, and he still would be years away from freedom.

Much has been made over the past few days of Mandela's strength, resolve and extraordinary capacity for forgiveness and reconciliation. But from one who never met him, saw him or reached for his hand, a different view comes to mind.

Years after Mandela's release in 1990, decades after he, as promised, served just one term as his nation's first post-apartheid president, Mandela thought back on the day he was sentenced to prison:

"I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonored those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy."

Mandela, at 44, was a middle-aged man when he went to prison, well past the hopeful spring of youthful rebellion.

Even from captivity, Mandela, a lawyer and former boxer, expertly and intelligently pushed and probed toward his goal, testing every possible path, from advocating violence to ultimately modeling reconciliation in a slow-motion quest to kill one system while seeding another.

He seemed as grounded and pragmatic, as stubborn and skilled as any general, masterfully amassing needed resources to unite South Africa. Mandela was a brilliant strategist who even after leaving public office stood firm, and spoke his mind, no matter what others, including the United States, thought.

Mandela's middle name, Rolihlahla, is Xhosa for "troublemaker."

The world sorely needs more.