I HAVE met very many leaders during my 29 years as deputy prime minister and prime minister. But none comes close to the stature of Nelson Mandela, freedom fighter and president of the Union of South Africa.
South Africa was a deeply divided country. The whites who came from Europe regarded the native Africans as almost sub-human and treated them accordingly. A policy of separateness or apartheid was made official and announced unashamedly to the whole world. Equality, a creed promoted in Europe for centuries, was rejected by the Europeans of South Africa.
Naturally, the blacks were bitterly angry over their treatment and the occupation of their land by the whites. Although some believed in non-violence, many opted to fight the whites with violence.
Nelson Mandela, as a young man, opted for a violent struggle against the whites. Towards this end, he trained as a guerilla in Yugoslavia and Libya.
In this March 11, 1997, photo, former prime minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his wife, Datin Seri Dr Siti Hasmah Mohd Ali, bidding South African president Nelson Mandela farewell as the latter boards a plane at the Langkawi International Airport.
But he was arrested and imprisoned. He was sentenced to hard labour and at times, he was put in solitary confinement. For 27 years, he was incarcerated on Robben Island, the sea around which was shark infested.
Twenty-six years is a long time, more than a quarter of the lives of most people. It is enough to break anyone's spirit. Or it will make a person extremely bitter. The wish to seek revenge, to pay back in kind the injustice done would be overwhelming in anyone.
Then, in 1990, he was released. Amidst the celebration of the whole world, he went to meet the leaders of Africa in Zambia. I was the only Asian leader to be invited to this African get-together.
Each one of us went to the upstairs lounge to meet him. I was expecting a bitter man, ranting over the injustice perpetrated on him and on his people. I thought if he was not bitter then he must be a broken, dispirited man.
But he was neither bitter nor broken. He was in high spirits. All he talked about was of reconciliation between the blacks and the white, of building a united South Africa, of prospering South Africans, irrespective of colour or creed. No ranting, no anger, no bitterness -- only a deep desire to put things behind and build a future for his country and people.
He was not angry, even against the gaolers of Robben Island. He had befriended them and they made newspapers available to him so that he could follow the developments in Africa and the rest of the world.
He knew a lot about Malaysia, about its independence. But what mystified him was the success of the Malaysian government against guerrillas.
He said that his trainers in Yugoslavia and Libya had told him guerrillas could never be defeated. In the end, they would win. So, how did Malaysia defeat the guerillas?
I explained about the campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people, about securing their safety, about the people eventually turning around to support the government against the guerrillas.
He regarded Malaysia's struggle against British colonialism as similar to the struggles of native Africans against the colonialist. But like most African leaders, he could not picture a former colony of the West developing. It was only after he had visited Malaysia that he believed the newly independent African states could develop. He was saddened by the conflicts which characterised many African countries. He worked hard for peace in Africa and elsewhere.
Mandela was truly a man of peace. He worked hard to curb the anger and bitterness of black South Africans. His towering figure was such that whites and blacks accepted the policy of reconciliation he advocated. No other leader could have done that.
But he inspired and influenced not just the people of his country, but also the rest of the world. The Nobel Peace Prize he was awarded was truly well deserved. But for him, South Africa would have witnessed the same turmoil we are seeing in many African and Middle Eastern countries.
With his passing, the world has lost an icon. The world of today needs such a man much more than at any time in its history. Overthrowing an authoritarian government is not enough. It is the reconciliation that comes after that is important. We see this in South Africa and it is entirely due to its beloved Madiba. He brought not just freedom to his country, but peace and stability. He is truly a great man, a man with a big heart, who has united a country which was so deeply divided that few could imagine any other end except violent struggles, death and destruction for South Africa as blacks fight whites with increasing ferocity.
Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad New Straits Times Online Opinion Columnist 12/12/2013