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Why the world aspires to live up to the legacy left by Mandela

Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff reflect on Nelson Mandela’s life with Donald Gips, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, John Stremlau of the Carter Center, Gay McDougall, Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa, and Douglas Foster, author of "After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa."

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    For more on Nelson Mandela's life and legacy, we turn to four people who knew him or watched South Africa's emergence from apartheid.

    Gay McDougall was a member the South African Election Commission, which administered the country's first democratic non-racial elections in 1994. Prior to that, she served as director of the Southern Africa Project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Douglas Foster is the author of "After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa." He's an associate professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Donald Gips served as U.S. ambassador to South Africa from 2009 to 2013. And John Stremlau is vice president for peace programs at the Carter Center. He taught at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

    Welcome to you all.

    Gay McDougall, what is your first reaction tonight on hearing of the loss of Nelson Mandela?

    GAY MCDOUGALL, Member, Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa: Well, I'm terribly sad.

    Of course, we all expected it. We knew it was coming. But, nevertheless, it is a shock. And it's quite saddening. I think, first of all, of the people of South Africa who will be mourning in a very special way. But I think of us all around the world have lost a hero, a hero that we desperately needed when he came forward and gave us hope.


    Well, as we continue this conversation, we want to — we do want to say to local stations, because of the special nature of tonight's program, that we are not going to be taking a break tonight, so that we can continue to discuss Nelson Mandela's life and legacy.

    And I want to pick up with you, Professor John Stremlau.

    You taught, as Gwen just said, in South Africa for a number of years after Nelson Mandela was released. What did you see of the man? What did he mean to his country?

  • JOHN STREMLAU, Carter Center:

    Well, he means everything for his country.

    And I think the challenge is to live up to the example he set, as President Obama indicated. What was great about Mandela was his respect for the rule of law. Think about it just for a moment — 27 years in jail under an illegitimate legal system, and to come and to defend the rule of law above all else.

    When he was asked to appear in court as a sitting president, his advisers said, no, no, no, you can't do it. You can't appear in this case on rugby and discrimination that he had asserted. It was a libel suit of some sort. And he said, look, no man is above the law, and so I will be there.

    I think he inherited this stubborn sense of freedom — fairness, as he described himself once, from his father. It was that stubborn sense of fairness which kept the process on track. And we Americans owe him and the country of South Africa a great debt, because nothing would have torn this country apart in the 1970s and perhaps into the '80s than a race war in South Africa.

    So, I — all I want to do is to celebrate this wonderful, wonderful man.


    I would actually like to pick up that, Ambassador Gips, because, by the time you arrived in Johannesburg as ambassador from the U.S., you had been appointed by an African-American president.

    You went — you were there and saw the legacy, the real legacy, the current-day legacy of Nelson Mandela in South Africa. And how did it resonate?

    DONALD GIPS, Former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa: It resonated incredibly. His presence still drives the country.

    You know, from people on the street to people in government, everyone aspires to live up to the legacy he left. It is a difficult challenge to live up to someone of his iconic nature, but he really inspired all of us, I think, around the world.

    And the message that he left for all of us is one that I think the world needs, whether it's our Congress or people around the world, of putting — putting aside our differences to work for the greater good.

    You know, I was so inspired — my most inspiring moment in South Africa was actually holding some of the letters that he wrote from prison at the Center for Memory and reading about what he gave up to fight for freedom and to fight for a better South Africa for everyone.

    And I think if — given what he gave up, we all need to take this moment and decide how we can make the world a better place.


    Douglas Foster, you got to know the Mandela family.

    In the last decade, you moved to South Africa for a time to write a book about what — after Mandela, the struggle for freedom after his time as president. What — how did you experience this? What would you add to this question of his effect on the country?

    DOUGLAS FOSTER, Author, "After Mandela: The Struggle for Freedom in Post-Apartheid South Africa": Sure.

    I got to know the old man, as everybody calls him in South Africa, through his grandchildren, primarily through his grandson Ndaba. And the last time I saw him at his home in Johannesburg, he did this typically puckish, mischievous thing.

    As my son and I entered the room, he said, "Ah, it's nice that young people still come to an old man who has nothing new to say."

    I think one of the important legacies of Nelson Mandela is to have given the challenge to the half of the population in South Africa that is 24 and under and didn't have direct experience of conditions under apartheid to understand that this is their moment and a time to shape the freedom that was on in their names.

    I think that the South African editor Ferial Haffajee wrote recently that Mandela had prepared his people for his passing in an unusual way, she said — quote — "like a good parent" — unquote.

    And I think that's worth marking on a day like this, that most leaders attempt to assert indispensability. That's their sense of their own role in life. I think one of Nelson Mandela's great gifts was to live long enough and also to be conscious enough about what it means to step away from power that he has given his people the gift of dispensability. The great experiment in creating a non-racial, non-sexist, non-homophobic and more egalitarian society at the Southern Tip of Africa survives him.


    Ambassador Gips, we know you have to move on from us in a few moments, so I want to circle back to you for a moment and just ask you a sense about whether Nelson Mandela's one term as president of South Africa and his heroic status, whether that had an effect on surrounding countries, on the region, on Africa as a continent?


    Oh, I think he inspires people around the continent and around the world.

    I think — I witnessed people coming to South Africa to pay tribute to him during the World Cup and at other moments. There is no greater figure in my lifetime. And I think, as President Obama said, he's his inspiration. So, I think he has inspired people not just in South Africa or in Africa, but around the world.

    But, in the end, what he did in South Africa is an example that we all need to follow.


    Gay McDougall, how do you explain the essence of Nelson Mandela? What gave him that impossible-to-understand strength that he had to come out of prison after 27 years and to go on to be the great leader that he was?


    Well, he is quite a remarkable individual.

    That's — I don't think there's no question about that. He has a certain regalness to him, but also a sort of down-home folksiness to him as well, but I think the mixture of knowing how to handle and to deal with power, yet seeing himself very much as a member of a collective of decision-makers, as a member of a liberation movement, of a political party, of South Africans as a whole.

    I will never forget the really transcendent moment that I was privileged to spend — to share with him when he voted for the first time in 1994. I was there as a member of the commission that ran the elections then. And President Mandela had put my name forward to be on the commission.

    But it was a remarkable moment for him and for his nation. And, you know, all of the suffering and struggle that had occurred before that moment was now telescoped through him and into the future, as he dropped his ballot into that box.

    So he has been a manifestation of all of the hopes and dreams and aspirations and — of his country. And he's been able to articulate that and to live a life that was worthy of that.


    John Stremlau, I'm curious. In watching Charlayne's piece, it was interesting to see his personality and his political side as well. He talked about his own — his own — how much he was convinced in the power of his own moral suasion.

    Was that an essential part of his success and his — his legacy as well?


    Well, absolutely, Gwen.

    The one error in the presentation, which is understandable, is when he said he's just an ordinary man. This was certainly no ordinary man. He had an appreciation of the humanity in all of us. He took an inspiration from Dr. King. He understood what the civil rights struggle was in this country.

    And he understood what tolerance and justice is for all. He's helped to make South Africa, which now celebrates next year 20 years of democracy — we are celebrating 50 years of a movement toward greater racial justice in our own country — what it meant to be part of a global, truly global community. And he appreciated the interest and support that he got from everywhere.

    But he also was willing to sort of look at the individual in his own country and say, you matter, and what you do really does count for something.

    And so, as a professor, the born free, so-called, now, the new generation of kids coming along who didn't know apartheid, they have to be reimbued with this Mandela ethic, as was said earlier in the — in the obituary.


    And Douglas Foster, pick up on that, and talk about why he was the beacon that he was for the rest of the world. People do amazing things and — but — but when you think about him, I mean, he really stands apart.


    Well, I think it's partly in the context — if you think about the idea of contingency in history, he stitched together so many divergent parts of South African culture — divergent parts of South African culture.

    He grew up as a shoeless cowherd. He went to the city and made something new of himself as a lawyer. But then he traded in that privilege, that hard-earned privilege to become a figure who was denounced as a terrorist in the United States and in South Africa, endured those prison years, as Charlayne told us, and came out with a singular vision of a different kind of society, and drove towards it so relentlessly.

    I think it's that commitment and consistency, the requirement of a very disciplined mind and a very steely man, too. As — as much as we're tempted on a day like this to only sing praises about the soft and warm side, he didn't succeed by being a pushover. He succeeded by being very tough, very strategic, and — and committed, absolutely committed to a vision during periods where one wouldn't have guessed that it would succeed.


    Gay McDougall, here in Washington, outside of the remodeled South African Embassy, there is a statue going up in which Mandela has his fist in the air. And he's right across the street from Winston Churchill, who has his victory sign in the air. It's quite a place on Massachusetts Avenue.

    It's tempting in moment like this to look at the past and — and not to look at the present and the future. So, as you think about Nelson Mandela tonight, and you think legacy, how do you think about his effect on the present and the future?


    Well, I think that he stands for the importance of personal commitment, for being true to one's principles, of working with people who share that kind of a vision, and of modeling a new kind of leadership for the future.

    I think these are all lessons that young people in the United States, as well as throughout Africa, are going to continuously turn to. He is a figure that is going to, in many ways, live forever. His lessons to us will live forever.

    And so while I think we all of course his passing, I feel that, you know, very soon, we will be taken with how much of a gift his life has been to all of us.


    Well, Gay McDougall, we thank you.

    We thank Professor Stremlau, John Stremlau, and Douglas Foster. We also want to thank Ambassador Gips, who was with us for a few minutes. We appreciate your joining us on this day.


    Thank you.


    And PBS' special coverage of Mandela's death includes a FRONTLINE documentary, "The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela: An Intimate Portrait of One of the 20th Century's Greatest Leaders." You can watch that online at