Amid the appropriate outpourings of positive remembrance since the death of Nelson Mandela – Madiba – one event which I witnessed closely illustrates his enormous capacity for compassion, his sense of occasion, his ability to provide the perfect gesture of meaningful good will from deep within his heart, and his reservoir of empathic wisdom—his instinctive fund of unsurpassed emotional intelligence.
Ten years ago, in the cavernous assembly hall under the House of Lords, about 400 of us were sitting in hard pews awaiting Mandela’s arrival to give a speech. Far up front, waiting impatiently for Mandela, were Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and other dignitaries.
Eventually, the Parliamentary Square-facing back door behind us gradually opened. Mandela, then 85, slowly walked (with a stiff leg) down the very long center aisle of the hall on the arm of Graca Machel, his wife. Everyone in the hall craned their necks, keen to see the former president of South Africa and, by then, the humanitarian icon of the world. His rejection of divisive, vengeful policies for an independent South Africa was well known, as was his ability as a post-apartheid leader to be magnanimously inclusive – to attempt to create a true rainbow nation.
Mandela had led his nation, the rest of Africa, and much of the world to understand that genuine moral authority, deftly demonstrated and excellently expressed, could elevate whole peoples and the rest of us in a shared, uplifting, journey. He was not a religious person, but his message was deeply spiritual.
Mandela was still walking down the center aisle. Soon he saw, to his right, a lady in a wheelchair. She probably looked considerably younger than Mandela was feeling that day, and she was certainly just one among hundreds of mostly mature adults waiting to see Mandela and hear what he had to say.
As soon as he reached where this woman was sitting on the aisle, Mandela stopped, put his hand on her shoulder, and said: “Thank you so much for coming. I really appreciate it.” Then he walked on.
There were speeches. His was hard to hear, Clinton and Blair’s were both vibrant, but not particularly memorable, and the others fit the celebratory occasion.
Then the event ended and we all sat in our seats as Mandela, with Blair holding one arm and Clinton the other, slowly walked from the front of the hall to the back, to the same door from which Mandela had entered.
Again Mandela noticed the woman in the wheelchair. Again, he stopped. Again he touched her and thanked her for hearing him speak. Neither Blair nor Clinton seem to have noticed, or understood the deep meaning of Mandela’s pause.
They swept on and out, Mandela and the others entering cars. We all filed out, the woman in question wondering why she had been so blessed and why she had been so fortunate to have been noticed, and spoken to so warmly and openly by Mandela. But that was his compassionate way, wherever he was and wherever he was going.