Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013: A Journalist's Appreciation

National Geographic Editor in Chief Chris Johns remembers the African leader.

A portrait of Nelson Mandela.

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.