JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s agonizing past swept over Alex McLaren, who stepped into sunlight with tears in his eyes after a tour of the Apartheid Museum, an unsparing study of white minority rule and the costly fight against it.
Yet South Africa-born McLaren, an American citizen, also found inspiration in the museum’s exhibition about Nelson Mandela, former prisoner, South Africa’s first black head of state and one of the great, unifying figures of the 20th century.
Mandela, now 94 years old and ailing, was a special figure in the anti-apartheid struggle because of “his perseverance, his ability to forgive and to reconcile, and the fact that he appeared when he did, him and others. But mainly him,” said McLaren, a retired engineer.
“There will be a lot of wailing, gnashing of teeth, when he goes,” he said, anticipating the grief of South Africa and the world.
The delicate health of Mandela, now convalescing behind the high walls of his Johannesburg home, came under scrutiny and speculation during a 19-day stay in a hospital in December. He was treated for a lung infection and had gallstones removed. Regardless of when the end comes, his burnished legacy was written years ago, even if the country he led from the long night of apartheid still struggles with poverty and other social ills.
Mandela’s place as South Africa’s premier hero is so secure that the central bank released new banknotes in 2012 showing his face, a robust, smiling image of the icon who walked out of a prison’s gates on Feb. 11, 1990 after 27 years in captivity. He is a Nobel laureate, the recipient of many other international awards, the subject of books, films and songs and, when he was active, a magnet for celebrities.
In part, what elevated Mandela was his charisma, his ability to charm through humor and grace, and an extraordinary capacity to find strength in adversity.
“People tend to measure themselves by external accomplishments, but jail allows a person to focus on internal ones; such as honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, generosity and an absence of variety,” Mandela says in one of the many quotations on display at the Apartheid Museum. “You learn to look into yourself.”
Just four years after being released from prison, Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994. His successes include the introduction of one of the world’s most progressive constitutions and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel that heard testimony about apartheid-era violations of human rights as a kind of national therapy session.
McLaren, the visitor to the Apartheid Museum, grew up in South Africa and recalled witnessing injustices of apartheid: blacks being arrested or stopped in the street, a black woman being pushed off a bus and a view among many whites that blacks were “somehow inferior.”
Now a resident of Scottsdale, Arizona, 66-year-old McLaren said: “South Africa is such a mixed place now. Some of it is falling apart, some of it is really good, some of it is really bad. But you know, it’s much better than it was, much better than it was.”
An imperfect country, but one that Mandela, whose clan name, Madiba, means “reconciler,” guided elegantly through a painful transition.
In “Mandela: The Authorized Portrait,” a collection of accounts about Mandela, lawyer and human rights advocate George Bizos described how Mandela joked about his age (he was 86 at the time) and said he would join “the nearest branch of the ANC in heaven.”
Bizos related in the book how he once told Mandela about Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher who was sentenced to death and said he hoped to meet Homer, Sophocles and other giants for eternal discussions in the afterlife.
According to Bizos, Mandela replied:
“But assume that there is no such thing. Have you ever had a night’s sleep when you were not disturbed at all — no dreams, no fears — you just slept throughout the night? Didn’t you feel very much happier? Can you imagine if there is this eternal sleep it’s also all right? So what’s there to be afraid of?”