Dancing with Nelson Mandela

Editor's note: In his 92nd year Nelson Mandela continues to inspire people around the world. Here's a story about Mandela that is one of GlobalPost's favorite stories of 2010.

BOSTON — To see Nelson Mandela so moved by a song that he gets up and dances is delightful.

On Mandela's 92nd birthday it is gratifying to draw attention to his love of music and dancing.

He strides in rhythmic steps and swings his friendly fists, occasionally punching the air with joy. To see the great leader shake the burdens off his shoulders and shake a leg is truly beautiful, a victory of the human spirit. The Mandela strut has been emulated across South Africa by dancers of all ages and races.

In "Asimbonanga," South African musician Johnny Clegg sings a song in Zulu, an ode to the imprisoned Mandela and to several others killed in the anti-apartheid struggle. It is at once a mournful song and one that celebrates those lives.

In a magic moment, when Clegg was performing that song in Germany in 1999, Mandela came onstage and danced. Then he took the microphone to declare: "Music and dancing makes me at peace with the world ... and makes me at peace with myself."

Then Mandela urged everyone to get up and dance. Who could refuse?

(In this video, Mandela comes onstage and dances at 2:42)

Mandela was once a man about town in Soweto and Johannesburg, going to the jazz clubs to enjoy performances by Miriam Makeba and Dolly Rathebe.

Today Mandela is fragile and cannot walk without assistance, let alone dance.

Even in failing health, however, Mandela has scored another triumph with the World Cup. He campaigned vigorously to get the world’s largest soccer tournament to be held in South Africa. Though he is increasingly frail, Mandela was to attend the tournament's opening. But then the death of his great-granddaughter in a car accident the night before brought the grieving leader to cancel.

A month later, Mandela's appearance at the closing match drew cheers at the stadium and from viewers around the world.

Nelson Mandela has loomed large during the 27 years I worked as a journalist in southern Africa, first he was a revered anti-apartheid prisoner, then he was a magnanimous head of state and now he is an influential statesman, lending support to campaigns against AIDS and child poverty.

I most recently saw Mandela three years ago at the offices of his foundation in Johannesburg. Hunched over and shuffling his feet as two assistants supported him, the thin, white-haired man moved across the hallway, speaking in a faint, almost child-like voice: “Yes, yes, I want to meet these schoolchildren. It will be good to see their play.”

He passed so close by that I could hear his raspy breathing and inhale his freshly washed yet stale, papery scent. It was hard to believe this frail figure was the man who so recently strode onto the world stage with vigor, towered like a colossus over other international leaders and effortlessly shouldered the conscience of mankind.

I first learned about Mandela when I came to newly independent Zimbabwe in 1980. His story was a legend repeated many times. The rural boy, from a poor but noble family, who became one of South Africa’s first black lawyers.

The anti-apartheid activist who moved the African National Congress to use violence against the apartheid system.

The "Black Pimpernel" who frustrated the racist police but who was eventually captured and put on trial for treason in 1963.

The affecting orator who, facing the death penalty stated: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Those words, along with other speeches and pictures of Mandela, were banned by the apartheid regime. But his words, especially that courtroom speech, were memorized and repeated in hushed tones by factory workers, miners, township schoolchildren and white university students.

During the 27 years of his imprisonment his reputation grew to such myth-like status that it seemed Mandela the man would be a disappointment. But bursting into the world after his release in 1990, Mandela proved to be astute and magnanimous and unexpectedly fun.

Yes, he blazed the campaign which brought the apartheid regime to collapse and he became the first black president of South Africa championing human rights. But he also had a zest for life, jumping up and dancing at a concert in London so that Queen Elizabeth surprised herself by dancing alongside him.

Shortly after Mandela was released in 1990, he came to Harare, Zimbabwe, and that was where I saw him dance for the first time. Thousands gathered at the airport to greet him. Exuberantly the 72-year-old Mandela joined a group of black and white schoolchildren performing traditional African dances. The crowd went wild with cheers and ululations.

Effusive and ebullient in a press conference later, Mandela fixed his gaze on the small band of journalists in Zimbabwe and answered each of our questions carefully and articulately, in stark contrast to the self-serving prevarications we had become used to from Robert Mugabe as well as other visiting leaders.

Most unusually, Mandela said it was an honor to meet us journalists and told us how our reports had kept his spirits aloft while in prison. When Mugabe tried to cut the press conference short, Mandela insisted in answering more questions. After the press conference he stayed on for a few minutes and we shook his big hand.

When I attended a concert by Johnny Clegg a few years ago in Johannesburg, he performed "Asimbonanga." That song is especially bittersweet for me. It reminds me of the past, when I was one of many who believed democracy in Zimbabwe could succeed and that majority rule would eventually triumph in South Africa.

I was introduced to "Asimbonanga" by a friend of mine in the African National Congress and we listened to it and danced to it many times. That friend later betrayed our bond and stole from me. So when Clegg sang the song, I sank into stony bitterness.

But then Nelson Mandela appeared. On a wide screen behind Clegg was the film of Mandela dancing to the song. When he said that music and dancing helped him to be at peace with the world, it was as if the words were meant for me.

If Mandela, who had suffered so much, could dance without resentment, then why couldn't I?

When Mandela, on film, urged everyone to get up and dance, the weight of my grudge lifted and I was up and smiling and striding like Mandela. As I looked around the concert hall I saw many other beaming faces and I knew that the power of Mandela, even through a video clip, had reached us all.

On his 92nd birthday, I hope Nelson Mandela is still dancing, perhaps while seated and with his children and grandchildren around him.

Let the sight of him dancing lift your spirits, too.