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No Room for Anger, Mandela Declares : South Africa: The former revolutionary is on the verge of leading Africa's richest nation. Life has taught him to treat others with respect, he says.

May 02, 1994|BOB DROGIN and SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — He has gone from herd-boy to president-in-waiting, from revolutionary firebrand to elder statesman, from political prisoner to a political leader about to assume power in Africa's richest nation.

But perhaps the most remarkable and perplexing transformation of 75-year-old Nelson Mandela has been a more personal one. For despite 27 years in prison, most of it cut off from his family and the world in a dank seven-foot-long cell, he is not angry, bitter or vengeful.

In an hourlong interview Sunday, as the ballots were being counted that almost certainly will make him the country's first black president, the leader of the African National Congress looked deep into his past to explain why--and gave rare insights into how he will govern South Africa for the next five years.

"I would like to be angry, and choke somebody for all the wrong things he has done," Mandela said. "But to be able to be angry, you must have the opportunity to be angry."

And he never had that luxury when, as a young black lawyer in the 1950s, he fought the brutal indignities of apartheid. His most difficult cases involved the insidious and now-abandoned system of pass laws, which severely restricted where blacks could live and work in the white-run society.

"An ordinary clerk in a pass office could change the life of a (black) man by saying (he) had no right to live in Johannesburg," Mandela explained. "That man loses his job, his house. His children who are at school, their future is blighted. You can't go to court, because the law is clear. That little clerk, at a desk in a pass office, has got the power to change the life and the future of that man."

So each time, rather than fighting the system head on, Mandela would go to the chief pass officer, the clerk's supervisor, and say, "Look, here is the situation, it's a tragedy for this family.' . . . Invariably, these leading officials, when you approach them, are touched by human considerations and reverse the decision of the clerk."

Similarly, when he was charged with sabotage, a capital crime equal to treason under South African law, and put on trial for 4 1/2 years that ended in the early 1960s, Mandela clearly remembers the "marvelous" cooperation of the legal authorities, who allowed him to keep his legal practice going.

"Because the case would be heard from 9 o'clock to 1 o'clock, and the afternoon would be free, I was able to arrange with the chief magistrate that all cases in which I was involved should be in the afternoon. And they met me in this regard, prosecutors, policemen and magistrates."

The lesson, Mandela said, was "people respond in relation to how you treat them. If you treat them with respect, and ignore the negative aspects, you get a positive reaction. So even before I went to jail for 27 years, I could not afford to be bitter."

That is a lesson Mandela carries into the halls of power in South Africa, where he will oversee a country in desperate need of reconciliation and reconstruction after more than three centuries of white rule and four decades of the brutal segregation of apartheid.

He is a man of unfailing grace and dignity, which has endeared him to whites as well as blacks. And he has rock-hard principles, as his willingness to sacrifice his freedom showed. But he is also a pragmatist who knows how to meet his opponents halfway. All those qualities will be crucial as he tries to heal a nation so torn by violence and racial hatred.

Unseen and unheard while in jail, Mandela still became a figure of mythic proportions, an inspiration and rallying cry for the black masses. And since he was released from prison in February, 1990, he has earned the respect, if not necessarily the vote, of everyone from conservative whites to once-wary business leaders to President Frederik W. de Klerk himself.

That, in fact, is Mandela's most important asset. Probably more than any other leader in the nation's history, he has won the confidence and trust of millions of people, from the black ghettos to the white corporate suites.

Even now, his time in jail remains the defining period in Mandela's life and a large source of his worldwide support.

While in prison, the lesson--to treat people with respect--was even more important. He and his fellow black political prisoners on Robben Island, the desolate island prison off Cape Town, immediately decided to befriend the white warders in charge of their cells--"because the big chaps can only persecute you through the warders in your section," he explained Sunday.

"If you say to the commissioner, or the minister of justice, I want three blankets, he looks at the regulations and just says, 'Well, the regulation says two blankets.' " Mandela said. "But if you talk to the ordinary warder in your passage, and you say I want three blankets, he just goes to the storeroom and takes out an extra blanket and gives it to you. So you learn how to work with the people put in charge of you."

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