Glen Retief

is an associate professor of nonfiction writing at Susquehanna University and author of "The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood"

I had just turned 21, and, of course, I understood the world. After living in fear for years as a teenager in a bully-infested, militaristic, whites-only apartheid school, I'd blossomed into a left-wing student revolutionary, and as young idealists often do, I had a pat answer for everything: world social-democratic government; forced land redistribution to correct colonial theft; and expansive rights for everyone, even downtrodden, misunderstood gangsters.

At the national student movement conference in Durban in December 1991, the collective mistrust was palpable. The Mandela-led constitutional negotiations were just beginning in the elegant glass skyscraper near the Johannesburg airport. The student conference was overwhelmingly black, but student activists of all racial backgrounds expressed fear and suspicion.

We didn't like the talk of compromise with racism, exploitation, and dispossession. At plenary after plenary, speakers stood up to condemn the leaders of the liberation movement for showing such apparent willingness to sell out core principles. We cheered and shook our fists.

Then, on the final day of the conference, our keynote speaker arrived:

Nelson Mandela.

I don't recall much about his actual speech: some quip about still getting used to life outside prison, and then, more seriously, his dream for a South Africa that could be a model of peace, justice, and racial cooperation. What I will never forget, though, is the question-and-answer session that followed. As I recall it, he stayed up there for about three hours, a lone figure fielding what can only be described as barely contained abuse from a crowd of about 1,000.

That day, we attacked his integrity for meeting apartheid leaders while in jail, without telling the rest of his organization. We lambasted him for being a dupe of tricky politicians like F.W. de Klerk. The words Uncle Tom might not have been spoken out loud, but they hung in the air nevertheless, unmistakable and ugly. We predicted his negotiating strategy would lead to more war, since the black majority would be so enraged at the compromises being considered.

Whenever he tried to answer these objections with reason - a leader sometimes needed to move slightly ahead of his followers; life involved trade-offs - he was met with mutters and head-shaking. Whenever a 19-year-old boy or girl, in T-shirt and sneakers, castigated him for his lack of accountability to "the people," there were claps and cheers.

I'd managed to secure a spot for myself near the front that day, and so I was standing perhaps 15 or 20 steps away from him. As this barrage continued, I could see him get taller and angrier. His cheeks tightened, and his face looked thinner. He looked in my direction during one of the rounds of applause for an aggressive question, and I stopped cheering, suddenly nervous.

Looking back today, I ask myself: What do Americans imagine happening next in this story? After the tributes we've all been hearing to this man's capacity for love, forgiveness, and generosity, perhaps we expect him to sigh, smile, and defuse the situation with what will soon become his legendary one-line, self-deprecating jokes. As when a friend who works in the South African government met him a second time, with years in between their encounters, and she asked him, "Do you remember me, Tata?" and he replied, "I remember you, but do you remember me?"

Or perhaps we expect Mandela to say to this crowd of young people, Oprah-like: "I understand how you feel."

Not that hot December afternoon. What Mandela did, instead, was take a step toward the rim of the stage.

"I have had enough!" he thundered. I could see the younger boxer in him then, the man who had literally floored political rivals in his university days. I could also see not just the grandfatherly peacemaker, but also the man who had launched the armed struggle against apartheid, blowing up railway lines and power stations.

The room was silent - his personal authority so powerful that not one of his thousand hecklers now dared interrupt him.

"Comrades, I will not permit me, my movement, or the African National Congress leadership to be slandered."

My heart pounded. I was thrilled, impressed, awe-inspired - and terrified.

"I have been young, like you," Mandela said. "I have been fierce. But I am here to tell you, you have no idea what you are asking for when you ask me not to sit down and talk with our enemies. You don't know what it is to ask an old man like me to sacrifice young people like you in a terrible war. Comrades, you are asking me today to kill you. You are asking me to maim you and hurt you and ruin your lives. You are asking to inherit not a country, but a wasteland.

"You are asking me all this, but I tell you, comrades, I will not give you what you want. War may still be needed - the ultimate sacrifice may still be needed from you, as it was from me - but if there is any chance of a peaceful transition, I must pursue it. My integrity demands it, and I will not waver."

Did anyone have an answer for him? In my memory, we all stand stunned, outmaneuvered. Certainly, in my 21-year-old mind, I realized, for the first time: This man is right. At this moment, he is the father of all of us here, and he is acting like a true parent, refusing to let us get ourselves into trouble.

"I remember you," Mandela told my friend, "but do you remember me?"

Madiba, father of my country. I won't be bidding goodbye to a soft man, not a saintly man. Rather, I'll be saying goodbye to a man fierce enough to love his people without fear. In doing so, in large measure, he saved us from ourselves. May we never forget him.