On February 11, 1990, after twenty-seven years in prison Nelson Mandela walked out into a changed nation. Once accustomed to living underground with the police hunting him, he was greeted as an African nationalist leader.
Mandela’s release was preceded by secret talks that included Kobie Coetsee, the Justice Minister, and Niel Barnard, the head of the intelligence service. Mandela asked for a meeting with P. W. Botha, the head of the apartheid state, which Coetsee and Barnard finally arranged in 1989. So anxious was Barnard, the intelligence chief, about the meeting that seconds before the two men were to shake hands, he knelt down to fix Mandela’s clumsily tied shoes. (Prisoners were forbidden shoelaces, and Mandela was long out of the habit of tying them.)
That anecdote says a lot about the length of Mandela’s imprisonment and his isolation—it is one thing to repeat the number “twenty-seven,” and another to think about being forbidden shoelaces so long that you forget how to tie them. It also says a lot about what a natural leader Mandela was, his presence and his grace—the dignity that years in prison couldn’t touch. In the end, even his jailers had to acknowledge that it was wrong for this man’s shoelaces not to be tied. And really, they must have known it much earlier.