Passing on Mandela's Torch
The man's legacy leaves a lasting contribution to the world
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UPDATED: December 16, 2013 NO. 51 DECEMBER 19, 2013
Nelson Mandela in My Eyes
Former diplomat recalls his impressions of the late leader
By Lu Miaogen

I spent six years working in South Africa in the 1990s, during which time I was privileged to witness the personal charisma of the great South African leader Nelson Mandela, who became that country's first black president in 1994.

In those years, whenever Mandela appeared at the reception parties of foreign missions, he would be greeted with cheers. He was a man who cherished friendships through both his words and deeds. I heard him say many times that the new South Africa would strengthen cooperation and exchanges with all friendly nations and that it would never forget those who have supported and helped South African people in the fight against apartheid.

Soon after the founding of the new South Africa in 1994, the country's leadership announced it would establish official relationships with Cuba and other countries, in spite of enormous pressure from some Western countries.

At a meeting, I met Mandela and told him I came from Beijing. He then held my hand firmly and said with a smile that he had visited Beijing before and he had good memories of his trip. He also praised the rapid development of China. I was deeply impressed by his humility and grace.

The extensive popularity of Mandela is closely connected with his care for the hardships of black people. In December 1994, as deputy director of Chinese Research Center (CRC) in South Africa, I was invited to attend the 49th national congress of the African National Congress (ANC). When Mandela approached the podium, the conference hall burst with cheers as all participants cried out his name.

Mandela gave a speech in which he promised the people that the new South African Government would rebuild and develop the country, addressing problems such as housing, education and employment. Mandela called for all South Africans to unite to achieve a new set of goals for the country.

When the opening ceremony concluded, Mandela was encircled by the crowd. All the congress representatives scrambled to shake hands with their leader. The scene lasted for more than half an hour.

I still remember clearly a meeting with Mandela at his office on August 9, 1993. His voice sounded strong and powerful. He said China had been supporting the South African people in their anti-apartheid endeavor since the 1950s, having provided the ANC all the aid that it could. Mandela also candidly talked with me and my colleagues about his prior trip to China's Taiwan. He said that he refused to set up an ANC office in Taipei as requested by the Taiwan authorities but would like to have such an office built in Beijing.

Mandela said to us that as international organizations such as the UN and the Organization of African Unity did not have official relations with Taiwan, that the ANC would also keep the same policy on the issue. I showed my appreciation for his remarks. At the end of the meeting, I asked him to take a group photo with us. He readily agreed. The meeting revealed Mandela's characteristic open-mindedness and courage. Our interaction convinced me that he valued highly the traditional friendship between China and the ANC, showing that these official relations were an irreversible trend.

On November 26, 1996, at a lunch with Gu Xin'er, one of my colleagues and former director of CRC in South Africa, Mandela confirmed that he had made a decision to break off official ties with Taipei no later than the end of 1997, and establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC).

On January 1, 1998, the PRC and South Africa announced the establishment of an official relationship. Mandela had no doubt played a crucial role in the event. In May 1999, Mandela, as South African President, made a state visit to China.

Mandela remained indifferent to fame and wealth in spite of the love and adoration he received as a political figure. After serving as the first president of the new South Africa with the blessing of the people, he chose to withdraw from politics after his five-year term rather than run for office a second time.

The author was the former Chinese Consul General in Cape Town

(The article was orginally published on globaltimes.com)

Nelson Mandela is a household name in China. Beijing Review interviewed six Chinese people about their opinions of the iconic figure, with excerpts as follows:

Huang Jia, 24, employee of a foreign trade company

Mandela is a warrior of anti-racial segregation. He is also a doctor who cured a broken country, a misshaped regime and an injured people. His lengthy prison life was returned with a Rainbow Nation. He realized racial reconciliation and political transformation in the country. And he became a legend by resigning from the presidency when he reached the political zenith. Here, I pay my respects to this nation's leader and its people.

Mei Xinyu, 45, researcher on economic studies

Mandela's fame reached its zenith with his death. He was a warrior of freedom and led the country to realize national reconciliation.

But as a president, he would not be proud of his administrative achievement. The country's economy and social security actually are worse than they were before Mandela came into power. The country now is notorious for its hovering criminal rates. South Africa used to be a big agricultural exporter, but since 2007, it has become a net importer of agricultural products. Over 5 million hectares of farmland are deserted. Moreover, the country is plagued by corruption and becomes less attractive to foreign investment. The consequence of South Africa's misgovernment will be more evident as time goes by. Chinese citizens and enterprises in South Africa should pay more attention to these problems.

Yang Zhiyuan, 23, postgraduate student at Peking University

I admire Mandela's ability to survive the hardships he had to suffer. But more impressively I believe one can learn from his example of forgiveness. I was amazed by his lack of resentment after he was released from prison and subsequent ascent to presidency. Mandela is called a freedom fighter because his cause was just and he was trying to make things better for the majority of South Africans, and he succeeded. I believe people will remember his contributions to human rights in South Africa.

Xi Fengyao, 43, editor of a law journal

Mandela's biggest contribution is realizing national reconciliation in South Africa. He convinced black South Africans to choose tolerance and reconciliation rather than revenge, which saved the country from the disaster of racial slaughter caused by racial conflict and political transformation, like what happed in Rwanda in 1994.

Mandela seized a good era of worldwide focus on human rights and racial equality. Few imprisoned political figures have had the good fortune of getting out of prison and entering the presidential compound.

I think he could do better on dealing with the balance between protecting human rights and striking crimes. Mandela propelled the abolishment of the death penalty in South Africa, and adopted a relaxed criminal law, which may have helped cause the hidden danger of today's high crime rate in the country.

Yang Xiaojie, 47, private entrepreneur

Mandela made great contributions to South Africa's end of apartheid and national reconciliation. He devoted his whole life to this pursuit, and suffered greatly while struggling to achieve his goal. His spirit should be reflected upon. I feel sorry for the loss of the country.

Wang Mengying, 25, bank clerk

Mandela dedicated himself to building a world without racial discrimination. His perseverance and unselfishness moved and encouraged many people, including me. The best years of his life were spent locked behind bars in prison. But he finally turned the dream of "all men are created equal" into reality. To South Africans, he was a beacon in the dark time of racial segregation and guided freedom fighters ahead. To people in other countries, his story perfectly interprets the proverb "faith can move mountains."

Email us at: dingying@bjreview.com

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