In the aftermath of his death at 95, Nelson Mandela is broadly admired for his sacrifice and courage. His political achievement in South Africa - his early days as a militant anti-apartheid activist, 27 years in prison, successful negotiations for a transfer of political power, five years as president and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission - are the stuff of legend.
That legend already is being written by many who encountered Mandela, lived under apartheid or learned something important from his example. Two people in the Lowcountry are joining the large chorus of mourners by sharing memories of their native country and the decades when racial discrimination was the law of the land and brutal violence its regular by-product.
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John Chalsty, 80, lived in South Africa until he enrolled in the Harvard Business School at 21. After earning his MBA, Chalsty worked for Exxon for 12 years, then joined the investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, eventually becoming its chief executive. He met Mandela the first time in 1992, two years after Mandela had been released from prison and two years before he became president.
"He had come to the United States trying to enlist people to go to South Africa and watch the polls," Chalsty said. Mandela was worried about fraud and wanted to ensure the election was administered fairly. "I met him at a luncheon in New York City."
The business luncheon was a recruitment tool arranged for Mandela, Chalsty said. The encounter was brief and mostly at a distance, but it revealed Mandela's practical side, Chalsty said.
"The remarkable thing about this man was that he was undoubtedly one of the most saintly figures I've ever seen, but at the same time he was an extremely able politician."
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Years earlier, Thulisiwe (Thulie) Beresford was living with her large family in Bhekuzulu Township, one of the many sprawling, often ramshackle communities to which blacks were relegated under the apartheid system. Beresford was luckier than many - her father Bethuel Ndelu was a school teacher, her mother Rosserth was a nurse. They were not destitute, and the children knew the value of education.
"When we were young, we didn't know much, but we knew there was racism," she said. "I can still remember (listening to) Miriam Makeba. Her music in South Africa was banned."
Makeba was an influential singer and civil rights activist with an enormous following. Sometimes, when the children wanted to hear one of their favorite radio dramas, they were overruled by their father. "I am listening to Miriam Makeba," he would declare.
But listening to her music was a subversive act. "He knew he could go to prison for that," Beresford said.
In January 1972, when she was nearly 10, Beresford and one of her brothers went to live with their grandmother in Swaziland, a "frontline state" where many political refugees from South Africa settled to escape their government's wrath and to contribute to the resistance movement from across the border.
As a high school student, Beresford knew some of the activists, members of the African National Congress, and occasionally saw two of Mandela's young daughters, she said.
One day, a student who lived in the dormitory two doors away from her disappeared. She was never found.
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The second time Chalsty met Mandela, it was under extraordinary circumstances.
The businessman returned to South Africa for a visit in 1995, and was invited by a colleague, Bertie Lubner, to join a small group of people accompanying Mandela to Robben Island, where Mandela had been imprisoned.
Lubner ran a humanitarian organization called Afrika Tikkun, on whose board sat Chalsty. The charity provides aid to children in South Africa's townships, and Mandela was its "patron in chief."
The group spent the whole day at the prison. It was Mandela's first time back since he left the island in 1988, two years before he was freed.
His eyesight, compromised by so many years of hacking at limestone in the quarry without protection, was weak, but his vision into the past, and into the future, was as clear as ever.
Chalsty said he was amazed at the conditions of Mandela's imprisonment. Cell No. 5, in which the aging leader had spent 17 of 27 imprisoned years, was tiny, without furnishing. Mandela slept on the floor in a sleeping bag, Chalsty said. The space hardly could accommodate both men.
"I was embarrassed," Chalsty said. He was trying to think of something to say. Finally, he managed a comment: "You look very well for someone who spent 27 years in this (cell)."
"Well what do you expect?" came the quick retort. "For 27 years I ate no junk food."
When Mandela re-entered public life, he became extremely popular among white South Africans, Chalsty said. "White South Africans actually idolized him."
That was a big, sudden change. Not long before, Mandela was vilified.
"White South Africans were convinced that whenever he got out of prison there would be bloodshed," Chalsty said. "He was the devil incarnate."
The United States looked on him with great suspicion too, especially during the 1980s. Mandela's ANC had the support of the Soviet Union; he had advocated for violent resistance years before and was labeled a terrorist; he openly criticized U.S. political and economic hegemony.
President Ronald Reagan added the ANC to the United States' terrorist watch list, refused calls to impose sanctions on South Africa and defended its white government.
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Beresford eventually moved again, this time to a house just off the main road of Clermont Township. "We would get tear gas all the time," she said.
Nearby, protesters in the central square would throw rocks at the authorities, provoking foot chases that sent activists across her small lot. The quick-witted ones would sit in her yard and start chatting with others as if they were members of the family who were meant to be there. The police would rush past, kicking people out of the way.
A policy of divide-and-conquer pitted members of different black tribes against one another, Beresford said. "I witnessed a lot of killings and fighting."
Later, when Beresford and one of her brothers, Elvis Ndelu, were attending the University of Swaziland, the family became embroiled in their country's Kafkaesque system of political retribution. Elvis decided to return home to South Africa for a visit, taking a familiar route, but never arrived. Londi, the eldest brother, went looking for him. At a border post, the officers asked Londi if he knew Elvis. "Yes, he is my brother."
They arrested him on the spot, but later released him. Soon after, a prison chaplain informed the family that Elvis was being secretly detained. He had been carrying a book by Mandela that was banned, prompting his arrest. The chaplain provided the court date and advised the family to bring a civil rights attorney. "If you don't do that, he might go to prison for a long time."
The lawyer negotiated Elvis' release, but repercussions nevertheless ensued. The government took away the two brothers' travel documents, preventing them from fleeing to neighboring countries where they might join the resistance movement. Beresford had to get a new passport that listed a different city of origin. The family was tracked closely, she said.
In 1986, she received a scholarship to study biology in Ohio, returned to South Africa two years later, then left for good in 1990 to attend Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. Today she lives in Summerville and is pastor of St. Barnabas Lutheran Church, near Hampton Park.
During those difficult years in Africa, Beresford and millions of others found a measure of solace knowing that Mandela was there, somewhere, hidden away in prison but ever-vigilant, ever-determined to see democracy become a reality.
"We knew about Nelson Mandela and what he had fought for," she said. "We knew the pain."
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Chalsty met Mandela two more times, once in New York City, when Mandela came to address the United Nations - the two men spent a morning together - and again, by chance, in the lobby of a Cape Town hotel.
"I was astonished that he was there without any guards," Chalsty said.
He treasures two mementos that occupy honored places in his Church Street home. One is a photograph of the two men shaking hands on Robben Island, a reminder of that extraordinary day they spent peering into the past.
The other is a print, No. 492 of 500, made by Mandela from a simple painting he produced while in prison. Through the bars of a jail cell Mandela painted a vista - not the actual view from his window but an image of what he wished he could look upon: a green expanse of South African veldt with Cape Town's Table Mountain in the distance.