National Geographic News
Nelson Mandela.

A portrait of Nelson Mandela.

Photograph by Chris Johns, National Geographic

Chris Johns

National Geographic

PUBLISHED DECEMBER 5, 2013

I met Nelson Mandela early in 2001 while working with writer Peter Godwin on a story about Peace Parks, wildlife reserves without borders. Arrangements for the meeting had taken a full year.

The interminable correspondence with the officials who surrounded Mandela flew back and forth. We'd only get ten minutes, they said. The former President of South Africa was a very busy man.

Finally, Peter and I stood on the threshold of his house in Houghton, a leafy suburb of Johannesburg. His house was tasteful, but not ostentatious. We were ushered in and offered tea. Mandela was a tall man who radiated warmth. He spoke quietly. The force of his words did not depend on volume. He was intensely focused. You knew he was listening with the full force of his concentration.

Mandela, who grew up on the banks of the Mbashe River in eastern Cape Province and who died Thursday at age 95, was a man of extraordinary discipline and strength. Twenty-seven years in prison could destroy a man. It made Mandela stronger.

He told us a story about being in a prison with a forest behind it. He knew when he was imprisoned how much he'd miss his family and his friends. He had not known how much he would miss nature. He kept asking to go for a walk in the forest to see a leaf, a bit of grass, anything green. But the warden refused, thinking he meant to escape.

One day he saw a poisonous snake in the prison yard. The warden wanted to kill it, but Mandela argued with him. The warden lifted his baton to strike it; Mandela struggled with him, trying to save the snake. The guard was stronger than he was. Mandela fell, the snake struck at him, but he quickly moved out of the way. "All I wanted was to give the snake its freedom," Mandela told us.

The ten-minute visit stretched into four hours. There was no sense of that malady pervasive in the political world that "my time is more important than yours." He knew all about the story we were doing. The idea of Peace Parks—reserves that transcend political borders, enabling animals and people to move freely across a single ecological unit—resonated with him.

Mandela, after all, was about inclusiveness and connection, not division. He had helped erase the lines drawn in the geography of the South African land and soul—that terrible canker called Apartheid. "I dream of an Africa that is at peace with itself," he wrote in a preface to the book Peter and I did later. We all have such dreams for the world, our country, and ourselves.

About three years ago, I read that Mandela had invited one of his prison guards to dinner. He'd developed a friendship with the man. That connection allowed him to maintain his "belief in the essential humanity of even those who had kept me behind bars," he wrote in his memoirs.

He understood the power of forgiveness, because he was a man of generosity and grace. Of all the places I have been, no place has affected me as deeply as South Africa. Nelson Mandela—and those lessons of unshakable principle, compassion, and grace—is the reason why.

Editor's note: Chris Johns is Editor in Chief of National Geographic.

22 comments
Brandt Hardin
Brandt Hardin

Mandela’s life was the embodiment of the human spirit.  His spirit will uplift every corner of the globe which battles for equal rights for its citizens.  Hopefully we may do his legacy justice by starting at home and empowering our citizens once again.  I was compelled to pay homage to Nelson Mandela with my art by creating a portrait of the world leader In Memoriam at http://dregstudiosart.blogspot.com/2013/12/in-memoriam-nelson-mandela.html   Drop by and let us know how his strength has inspired you!

Farida Jamal
Farida Jamal

I hope that one day Africa will be at peace with itself. A man of great strength and generosity which the world lacks. 

Rest in Peach Madiba.

Firas Nofal
Firas Nofal

He is one of the greatest men ever born. He is a role model for me.

Catherine Heukelman
Catherine Heukelman

His  spirit will live on forever in this country and in the rest of the world. He was

a compassionate man and a humble man. He always had time to listen to people

and was not into his own ego at all... unlike other people in power in the world.

I am sorry I never got the opportunity to meet him in person. What he did for South

Africa will never be forgotten. Rest in Peace, Madiba. 

Nio Hauw
Nio Hauw

A great MAN has passed away; we will remember him

Minnie Williams
Minnie Williams

A sad day for all of us the day Nelson Mandela died, My heart goes out to the Family

lynda francis
lynda francis

That is so inspiring he has helped shape me.Really an extraordinary man of strength.Surely if we can take a page from him the world will  be a better place.

Bettina Baker
Bettina Baker

How I wish there were more men like Nelson Mandela in this world

Lloyd Thomas
Lloyd Thomas

Bless you Chris.


The national Geographic has powers.

Reynaldo Ricamunda
Reynaldo Ricamunda

We are so proud of you Former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela,The Champion for Peace in the whole world, you will be always remembered, Thank you for being with us.

Gottfried Salinger
Gottfried Salinger

Thank you a simple story that shows who a man can be if he chooses, trouble is that most choose any other way but this. Little wonder he is so beloved of nearly all people. Vale Nelson R. Mandella.

Antoinette Levi
Antoinette Levi

Thank you for sharing  this lovely Story. It has made me a better person and proud to be South African, living forever with the guidance and love of our Great Leader.

Harshi Dhaul
Harshi Dhaul

We all must take in what Nelson has done throughout his life and try making this world a better place!

Ivan Montaño
Ivan Montaño

he was a real hero for the humankind, his legacy will live forever


Giulia Sersale
Giulia Sersale

Thank you for sharing this story, it is so interesting to read about such an extraordinary life

Arleen Hilliard
Arleen Hilliard

Thank you for giving me a small glimpse into such a wonderful life

Sharalyn Pliler
Sharalyn Pliler

Thanks for this well-written article. It conveys a lot in a short space. 

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