Memories of Mandela

When Ashland peace mediator and human rights attorney Eric Sirotkin worked as an observer of South Africa's first post-apartheid election, he saw in Nelson Mandela a rare leader "willing to embrace people, accept change and forgive deeply from the heart."

Sirotkin worked on assuring a free and fair 1994 election, he says, teaching people in voting booths how to use a ballot for the first time and settling disputes in the days and months before voting, to help ensure a peaceful process.

He also worked on Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which, starting in 1996, allowed hearings and reparations for victims of racial violence under apartheid — and allowed perpetrators to speak and request forgiveness and amnesty.

He worked with Mandela — who died Thursday at the age of 95 — on two occasions as well as with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who like Mandela was a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

"When Mandela spoke, the world seemed a lot smaller, as if you were in your living room with him," says Sirotkin. "He would smile and reach out to people and say something so meaningful and rich about how we are all connected, including both the oppressor and the oppressed. We would be amazed how, speaking to people in villages, he just mesmerized them."

Mandela's central message was Ubuntu. Sirotkin said the philosophy was described to him by Tutu as "the essence of what it means to be human to other people, that what I do to someone else is what I do to myself."

Sirotkin met and spoke with Mandela in 1996, when the South African president came to a village to turn on its first water system, freeing the village's women from carrying heavy jugs of water on their heads for 10 miles, as they had through centuries of poverty.

Sirotkin recalls small things about the famed leader, his cold hands from poor circulation, his bad knees and his sensitive eyes, all from the rigors of 27 years in jail, then the stressful travel and media exposure as he fought to not just reverse apartheid, but to undo squalor and poverty.

"He would say all these new rights are just an illusion unless we lift up conditions under which people have to live," says Sirotkin. "To me personally, it isn't what laws you pass. He taught me that it's about social justice. You have to redefine success as Ubuntu."

A native of Michigan, Sirotkin early on joined the National Lawyers Guild, a public interest group that admitted blacks before the American Bar Association allowed it, he says. As a member of that group, Sirotkin in 1990 (before Mandela was elected president of South Africa) worked with the African National Congress to shape that nation's proposed constitution and bill of rights.

Using some of Mandela's precepts, Sirotkin worked with refugees from wars and persecution in El Salvador and Guatemala — and with the vice president and assembly members of North Korea, on four visits there, seeking the healing of a country broken in two in 1947, separating thousands of families.

"My experience in South Africa and with Nelson Mandela has given me the courage to take on conflicts that are very large, such as Korea and as small as a local family dispute right here. The main dynamic, which Mandela taught is to listen and respect the other person, to walk a mile in their shoes — and to be creative in problem-solving, while living in the present, not the past."

Sirotkin compares Mandela to many other visionaries who were also lawyers, including Gandhi, Vaclav Havel and Abraham Lincoln, "people who saw conflict as an opportunity, not for winning, but for healing."

"Lincoln said the nobleness of lawyering is peace — and when we saw the people come out of those voting booths, all carried out over three days of peace in South Africa, you saw people who stood tall against great challenges and odds and it was all brought about by a man who did it with a great smile and playfulness in his heart."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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