Bhasin: Remembering my meetings with the great Nelson Mandela

Former South African President Nelson Mandela, left, receives

Former South African President Nelson Mandela, left, receives Harsh Bhasin in the Union Buildings, Pretoria, in October 1998, as Bhasin presents his credentials as India's high commissioner to South Africa. Bhasin is now visiting professor and chairman of the Department of Asian & Asian-American Studies at Stony Brook University. Photo Credit: Handout

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As the world mourns the loss of one its greatest sons, I am led to nostalgic reflections of Nelson Mandela.

My first of several meetings with Mandela took place in Gaborone in April of 1990 when I, as high commissioner of India to Botswana, extended a formal invitation to him to visit my home country. Earlier, while he was in prison, India had bestowed on him the nation's highest civilian honor for his unremitting struggle against apartheid and for the freedom and dignity of his people.

He was deeply grateful for the invitation, and thanked me for the immense help my country had given the African National Congress when it was under severe restrictions by the white minority government that ruled South Africa. Our meeting, scheduled for 15 minutes, went on for nearly an hour as he recounted the inspiration he drew from Mahatma Gandhi during moments of despair in his 27 years in prison. He ended the meeting with a sentence he was to repeat on at least two subsequent occasions: "Remember, India sent Mohandas Gandhi to South Africa, but it was South Africa that returned Mahatma (Great Soul) Gandhi back to India."

He apologized for his inability to visit India soon, because as he put it, "there is still a lot of work to do for getting South Africa firmly on the path of a true democracy." It took another four years of painstaking negotiations with the white minority rulers before political power was truly transferred to the country's majority through free and fair democratic elections. After 27 years in prison, Mandela was not prepared to accept anything less than a genuine multiracial democracy with one person, one vote.

His greatest gift to South Africa during his presidency was undoubtedly the process of truth and reconciliation that he set in motion, a clear message to both whites and non-whites that atonement for the gory past could only come through admission of wrongdoings followed by genuine contrition and then moving on. It is an attribute I have tried to apply in my own life, albeit with limited success. I am still working on it.

A few years after our initial meeting, I had the privilege of several one-on-one sessions with Mandela to discuss the growing relationship between India and South Africa.

What struck me most in my meetings with him was the almost unbelievable extent of his forgiveness of his captors who had kept him wrongfully incarcerated.

"How do you do it, Madiba?" I dared ask him in one of our meetings, using the African term of endearment and reverence. His reply was quick. "There is a higher cause here than my imprisonment," he said. "It is the cause of unity of the people of South Africa after a long -- very long -- ordeal."

He knew that the unity he spoke of -- between the minority white rulers and the majority black population -- would be impossible to achieve without the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation of which he was the one -- indeed, the only -- symbol. Without it, South Africa would have been plunged into an unprecedented bloodbath, perhaps even a long civil war. Mandela was determined to prevent that.

When I took leave of him in December 2000, I invited him on behalf of then-president Shirley Strum Kenny to visit Stony Brook University, which I joined in January 2001 as visiting professor. He graciously accepted and was to come on Sept. 15, 2001, but the tragic events of 9/11 resulted in the cancellation of his visit.

As Mandela's body is laid to rest on Sunday, the Stony Brook community and I join the rest of the world in praying for his soul. Mankind still has so much to learn from his infinite wisdom, unlimited compassion and boundless sense of history.

Harsh Bhasin is visiting professor and chairman of the Department of Asian & Asian-American Studies at Stony Brook University.

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