Mainers with ties to South Africa expressed sadness Friday while reflecting on the life of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95.
John Dennen, owner of Indrani’s store in Brunswick, is a U.S. citizen who lived in South Africa for 30 years. He has children who still live there.
“I think we live in a better world because of Nelson Mandela,” said Dennen by phone Friday.
Dennen, who is white, married an Indian woman while in South Africa, which was forbidden under apartheid.
“If you were like me and born white, you were born into a society of extraordinary privilege,” he said. “You were taught from infancy that you were superior. There was no intermingling of people of other races, other than workers or servants. My wife had no rights. She could not own property, could not vote and couldn’t go where she wanted to go.”
Mandela, an anti-apartheid activist, was released from prison after 27 years in 1990. South Africa rejected its apartheid government, and Mandela was elected president in 1994.
“A lot of people were very fearful when he became leader because he had a right to be angry and vengeful,” said Dennen. “There was an expectation that would happen. But that didn’t happen. He was extraordinary. He managed to get everyone on the same page.”
“I think everybody was concerned there would be a bloody war. All he had to do was raise his arm and scream revenge, but he didn’t,” said Brian Cullen, a Brunswick man from Durban, South Africa.
Cullen’s wife, Jane, who works as a library assistant at Brunswick Junior High School, is from Great Britain and lived in South Africa.
Like Dennen, Jane Cullen was involved with the anti-apartheid movement in the 1970s and 1980s. She left the country for Maine in 1988, but often travels back to South Africa. The change from when she left the country to today is enormous, she said.
“He was an extraordinary man. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe how extraordinary he was,” said Cullen.
Even whites in South Africa who hated blacks liked Mandela, Dennen said.
“They would say things like they hate black people, but they thought Mandela was pretty cool. It was astonishing to hear them say that,” said Dennen, who travels to South Africa every year helping Rotary International with HIV and AIDS work.
Doug Curtis Jr. of Rockland said the visit he made to Robben Island in South Africa where Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment made a lasting impression.
Curtis, who served 30 years with the Army, including 13 years in active duty, said he had to sleep on the ground at various times when stationed in the Philippines, Korea and Iraq.
“I cannot even imagine sleeping on a rug in a cold cell for 17 years of my life,” Curtis said.
The Rockland man said he was at the Waterworks restaurant Thursday when he saw the news coverage of Mandela’s death.
He said he was saddened but also aware that the former South African president had been near death for months.
Curtis said that Mandela’s ability to forgive his captors after 27 years in prison shows the immense character of the man.
“We do not have anyone in this country that we all hold in such high esteem as President Mandela,” Curtis said.
Curtis visited South Africa in 2008 and 2011 and toured Robben Island both times.
Despite areas of deep poverty, he found the people were happy because they were free, thanks to the long, hard fight waged by Mandela.
“The world has lost one of its greatest leaders in the 20th century. For that, I am personally truly saddened, but I have great hope for that country and the future of Africa,” he said.
Former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen recalled Mandela, whom he met on several occasions, as a “great presence.”
“You could not be in his presence without knowing you were in the presence of a great man,” the Bangor native and former Republican senator said in a phone interview Friday.
Cohen traveled to South Africa in June 2000. On that trip, he and his wife visited Robben Island, where Mandela had been imprisoned and forced to crush rock. Cohen said he looked out between the bars of the cell in which Mandela was held. He recalled feeling a sense of anger just in his short visit, which made it all the more remarkable that Mandela was able set aside a sense of revenge to pursue reconciliation instead.
During the same visit, Cohen visited Mandela at his home. “His bearing was one of strength and kindness,” he said of the man, who stood “ramrod straight.”
“I’ve been in the presence of many kings, but none like him,” Cohen recalled.
Mandela’s legacy is one of putting grievances aside, recognizing differences of opinion but then working toward solutions based on a moral vision.
Cohen, a Republican who served as defense secretary under Democratic President Bill Clinton, said political leaders worldwide need to heed that universal message. “Public officials need to pay more than lip service to the message that is coming out.”
BDN Managing Editor Susan Young and writer Stephen Betts contributed to this report.