I personally like this quote by Vanity Fair magazine “When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace,” and as we continue to mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela, here is a 2007 excerpt by Bill Clinton for the magazine aptly entitled “A man called Hope.”
At my Harlem office, the headquarters of the Clinton Foundation, several portraits that have particular meaning to me are clustered together on a prominent wall, next to a small conference table I use to meet with staff and guests, including a daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln and a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Lorraine Motel, in Memphis, on the last night of his life. There are also three photographs of Nelson Mandela, two taken during his presidency, and another, more pensive one taken after he left office. At home I have a picture of Mandela walking arm in arm with me outside his old jail cell on Robben Island. I treasure all of these photos because of what Mandela has meant to South Africa and the world.
I’ve told this story about a thousand times, and I’ll keep telling it for the rest of my life, because it’s so unforgettable. In 1998, I made the first visit by an American president to South Africa. By then President Mandela and I had become friends. We had met during the Democratic convention in New York in 1992, and I had hosted him at the White House in my first term. After we toured Robben Island, I told Mandela that on the day he was released from prison, after 27 years, I had awakened Chelsea, who was then 9, so she could watch him walk to freedom. I told him I knew he was a great man to have overcome his anger enough to invite his jailers to his inauguration and put the leaders of previously pro-apartheid parties in his government.
Then I asked, “But when you were walking to freedom, didn’t you hate them again?” With wonderful candor he replied, “Of course I felt old anger rising up again, and fear. After all, I had not been free in 27 years. But I knew that, when I drove away from the gate, if I continued to hate them, they would still have me. I wanted to be free, and so I let it go.” Whenever I feel anger and resentment rising inside myself, I try to think of what Mandela said, and follow his example. We’d all be a lot happier if we could do that.
For several years now, I have traveled to Africa in July to see firsthand the work my foundation is doing there, and also to spend time with my friend on his birthday. Last year, the very first thing Mandela said to me as I stepped out of the car to greet him was “Where are Hillary and Chelsea?” I told him that Hillary was working hard in the Senate, and that Chelsea was putting in long hours at her job. When Mandela and I were both in office, we had several official calls, usually at night in the U.S. He always asked to speak to them after our business was done. I have seen him extend the same kindness and show the same interest in total strangers, especially children.
Nelson Mandela has a fine mind, natural charisma, and a progressive vision. But it is his loving heart and reconciling spirit that have made him the greatest of leaders. He gave South Africa democracy, freedom, and peace. After he left office, his moral leadership on behalf of peace and reconciliation elsewhere in Africa and his clarion call for global action on H.I.V./AIDS have continued to inspire the world.
In his campaign against H.I.V./AIDS, Mandela’s message has been that the disease isn’t a death sentence, that we have the means to prevent and treat it, and that no one who is H.I.V.-positive should be discriminated against. In recent years, this work has taken on personal significance for him, with the painful loss of his son, Makgatho, to AIDS, in 2005. His willingness to speak publicly about his personal tragedy has done a tremendous amount to further reduce the stigma associated with H.I.V./AIDS across sub-Saharan Africa.
At the International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, in 2002, Mandela asked me to devote my foundation’s attention to the epidemic, and in particular to the millions of H.I.V.-positive people living in nations unable to afford lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs for their citizens. After speaking with other leaders from the developing world at the conference, I became convinced that treating the sick was a surmountable, albeit enormous, challenge. I started the Clinton H.I.V./AIDS Initiative that year with the goal of dramatically lowering the cost for AIDS drugs. As of today, we have knocked down the annual cost for a typical adult from $500 to less than $140. The price of children’s drugs has fallen, on average, from $600 to $60. Some 500,000 people are receiving medicine bought under our contract terms, and I’m hopeful that two million will have been helped by the end of 2008.
Still, we are far from our goal of universal access to H.I.V./AIDS medicine, and we fall pathetically short in providing treatment to children, though rapid progress is being made now, thanks to the French-led UNITAID program. What we have accomplished, however, is in no small measure due to the inspiration and urging of Mandela, who has forcefully, repeatedly, and effectively argued that saving lives is both morally imperative and economically feasible.
Given the way we have been able to expand treatment for those living with H.I.V./AIDS in just a few years, I am convinced that we can have a similarly positive impact on the other pressing challenges that the Clinton Foundation is focused on, including climate change, economic development in Africa, and the childhood-obesity epidemic in the United States. These efforts and those of other foundations and individuals also derive momentum from Mandela, because when he left public affairs, though he was over 80, he didn’t stop being a public servant. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, movements such as the One Campaign, and many others around the world are able to do critical work on H.I.V./AIDS and other challenges in part because Mandela helped to create a climate in which donors, governments, and activists understand that change is possible and that we all have a responsibility to do our part.
Last July, I visited Lesotho, a small mountain nation surrounded by South Africa, and only a few hundred miles from Johannesburg, where Mandela lives. I spent time there talking with doctors and patients at the Karabong Clinic, where my foundation is working to help provide more than a thousand H.I.V./AIDS patients with the treatment they need. At one point, we stood outside the clinic to talk to the local press about the stigma surrounding the disease, and about our ability to treat those who are sick and give them back their lives. A young girl from the clinic, who couldn’t have been more than six years old, joined us. I’ll never forget her, because she clung to my hand for a long time. The next day, in Johannesburg, I held another hand, Mandela’s, as we talked about our families, his health, and things to come. I doubt that Mandela will ever meet the little girl in Lesotho, but I know that he has touched her life, and millions of others, changing their course for the better, and offering them a hope-filled future.