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Remembering Nelson Mandela

| Saturday, July 13, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Nelson Mandela led a genuinely remarkable life. Not surprisingly, his many relatives are fighting over his money and the power of his name.

As Reuters has reported, newspapers across South Africa have run “Mandela vs. Mandela” banner headlines as the bitter, greedy internecine squabbling is played out in public by Mandela's family, including ex-wife Winnie Mandela.

Winnie was practically canonized over the decades by the U.S. media and American feminists like the unctuous Phil Donahue. But she was viewed by millions in South Africa as a money-hungry thug.

She cheated on Mandela with young men on her “soccer team” in Soweto, lived in a mansion, drove a BMW and allegedly stole money from the African National Congress when she led the “Women's Wing.” She would sometimes dress like her vision of Fidel Castro — in camouflage fatigues and with a .45-caliber pistol in a military holster.

Winnie was charged with murdering Stompie Seipei, 14, whom she accused of being a police informer. Her bodyguard, Jerry Richardson, who was convicted of the murder, said Winnie had ordered him to kidnap and kill the boy. He testified that Winnie participated in Stompie's beating and then “I slaughtered him like a goat” with gardening shears. Winnie beat the murder charge but was convicted of Stompie's kidnapping. She was sentenced to six years in prison; the sentence was suspended.

In April 1994, two weeks before the election that brought Nelson Mandela and the ANC to power, I flew into Johannesburg to be an observer for the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Mandela was hugely popular among black people. The night of my arrival he spoke at an ANC rally in Johannesburg. So many people rushed to greet him that a 6-year-old boy and two women were crushed to death beneath the feet of enthusiastic supporters. A couple of dozen other people, mostly women and children, were injured, some very seriously.

There were 22.5 million voters in South Africa then, half of them illiterate. For 80 percent of them it was the first time they voted. Our small observer delegation was put up at the four-star Carlton Hotel. Nelson Mandela was also living there, in the 8th-floor presidential suite.

South Africa is a violent country. My third night there a Chinese man ran shouting into the lobby, bleeding from facial cuts. He had been jumped outside by a couple of majitas, who had punched him, slashed him with a knife and stolen his wallet.

One morning at 6 o'clock, I stepped into the empty hotel lobby. Walking toward me was Nelson Mandela. He was wearing a dark suit, blue shirt and red tie. A half-dozen black men surrounded him. They moved as a group. I was the only other person in the lobby. As they passed, I said, “Good morning.”

Mandela stopped, said “Hello,” and stepped through the circle of men. He offered his hand. He had a firm, smooth shake. I said that I was an American.

He replied, “Nice to see you,” the perfect political greeting.

I warmed and said, “I met you at the State Department in Washington a few months ago. At the Fulbright Award ceremony. I was with Mrs. Fulbright and my wife.”

This man, who has met thousands of white men who fit my description, smiled broadly and smoothly said, “Of course, good to see you again.”

Richard W. Carlson is a former U.S. ambassador to the Seychelles and the former director of the Voice of America.

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