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Mandela’s greatest qualities, as observed by Richard Stengel

“Measured” and “unbitter” were two descriptive words Stengel used in his Westminster Town Hall Forum talk.

Richard Stengel signing books for attendees of Tuesday's Westminster Town Hall Forum.
Westminster Townhall Forum/Doug Knutson

“Measured” was the word he chose.

Nelson Mandela, who easily makes my list of the greatest 20th century figures, would be turning 100 this year if he hadn’t shuffled off this mortal coil back in 2013.

The man who brought down the hideous and explicitly racist apartheid system in South Africa and became the first black president of that predominantly black nation, also had the dignity and grace to retire after one term in office, contrary to many other revolutionary leaders who diminished their legacies by hanging on to power too long.

Richard Stengel, a white, American journalist, diplomat and author of note who has made perhaps his biggest mark writing with and about Mandela, gave a talk as part of the Westminster Town Hall Forum last night titled “Mandela’s Way,” which, not coincidentally, was the title of his 2009 book analyzing the qualities that made Mandela great. “The world would be a better and peaceful place if more leaders would follow Mandela’s Way,” Stengel said last night.

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Stengel had earlier collaborated with Mandela on the great man’s 1994 autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom.”

In his Minneapolis talk last night, Stengel was asked for a word to describe Mandela’s greatest personal asset. The word he chose was “measured.” I took this to mean that Mandela didn’t react quickly or shallowly or even spontaneously. He “measured” the situation and worked his way as calmly and rationally as he could to the best response. I don’t know if I’m right, but I was struck by Stengel’s choice of that word.

Mandela grew up in a prominent family, in a part of South Africa where white oppression was mostly absent. When his father died, the tribal king adopted him. As he gained awareness of white oppression, Mandela had been angry, and had been part of a violent socialist revolutionary movement, the African National Congress. He was arrested for his activities, imprisoned and spent 27 years, the bulk of his young adulthood, behind bars.

When asked about Mandela’s great qualities, Stengel expressed his own amazement that, having had all those years stolen from him, he was “so unbitter.” Later he said that Mandela actually did harbor bitterness about those lost years, but he decided never to let anyone see his bitterness.

When Stengel got to know Mandela well enough to ask him about that, Mandela told him that “if you don’t forgive your oppressor, that oppresses you.”

Having been exposed to Mandela’s great qualities, Stengel said, “What saddens me is that so many leaders lack these qualities.” He made a big exception on that score for Barack Obama, who, Stengel said, “in many ways embodied the qualities of Mandela.”

The trouble is, “we need bread and circuses,” Stengel said, “and now we’ve gone a bit too far in the direction of circuses,” which one could take to be a reference to the current administration in the White House.

“I don’t know that we need another Nelson Mandela,” Stengel said. “But we need people who put principle above party.”

Stengel’s talk will be rebroadcast at noon and 9 p.m. today on MPR.

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P.S. MinnPost was a co-sponsor of the event.