Even though John Nichols watched the man’s health deteriorate over the last few months, he said he was shocked to hear about Nelson Mandela’s death.
“You do start to think of him as permanent,” Nichols said.
Nichols followed Mandela for American newspapers in the 1990s, covering his visit to the states right after he was released from prison and his campaign for the South African presidency.
“I have covered many, many American campaigns, seen a lot of politics in this country,” Nichols said. “I have never seen anything like his campaign in 1994.”
Nichols said Mandela’s ability to connect with people was a God-given talent. He said during his rise to presidency and once he reached that political position, Mandela was constantly reaching out to people who both supported him and who were not behind his cause.
"You know there's that old gospel song, the song 'Amazing Grace,' and you know, you think, 'What does that mean?'” Nichols said. “And here's this guy who spent decades in prison and yet embraced his guards and invited them to his inauguration. I think that people know those stories. We grew up with them.”
Nichols said people here in Wisconsin did not have to shake Mandela’s hand to feel connected to his message and his story. He mentioned the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus was highly active in anti-apartheid rallies. Especially for those former students who saw their protests to free Mandela from prison come to fruition. Nichols said the impact of his life is still strong.
“I think for an awful lot of people, there is a sense of deep connection and a sense that something very, very powerful happened in their lifetime, and it was embodied by this man,” Nichols said.
Nichols said he doesn’t think Mandela lived to see the South Africa he envisioned, but he did achieve leading a country with less racial discrimination. However, Nichols said Mandela wouldn’t want to see his legacy end with his passing.
“Even though something remarkable was accomplished in his lifetime, there's no reason not to believe that remarkable things can't be accomplished in our lifetimes,” Nichols said.