Today Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela is 94 years of age. He is a universal hero. I have met him several times. The first occasion was in early March 1990, soon after his release from jail. P.V. Narasimha Rao, Anand Sharma and I were deputed by Rajiv Gandhi to convey to the great man the greetings of the Congress Party on his release. The three of us met him in a village outside the then Tanzanian capital, Dar-es-Salaam.

Meet with Rajiv Gandhi

My very special Mandela memory is of the first Mandela-Rajiv Gandhi meeting in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, on March 20, 1990. Rajiv Gandhi and I were there to participate in the independence day celebrations on March 21, 1990.

The South African flag was lowered. The Namibian flag unfurled. It was a historic moment. Sam Nujoma, the prisoner of yesterday, became President on that memorable day.

The moment Rajiv and Mandela met, they connected. The age gap melted away. Rajiv Gandhi’s opening words were, “Mr. Mandela, when my daughter heard that I would be meeting you, she said I should think of her when I shook hands with you. I am thinking of her now.” I sat in silence. I thought of the closing remarks of the speech Mr. Mandela made at the conclusion of his historic trial on April 20, 1964.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Nelson Mandela’s moral apparatus is unique. So is his life. He is now in the evening of his life. In the garden outside his window many leaves have turned. The grandeur of his life continues to inspire. That inspiration will transcend time.

(The writer is a former External Affairs Minister of India.)

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