I first met Mandela at a business awards gathering. The second time was at the opening of the SOS children’s village in Cape Town where he presided as guest of honor. He was charming, talking to me about my job while holding my hand. He was still extremely energetic at 79 and very handsome. His only ailment was watery eyes, the result of 13 years spent doing hard labor at the limestone quarry on Robben Island, where he spent 18 years of his 27 years of imprisonment in a small cell.
I also met the president at the Mandela House in Johannesburg when he greeted the Manchester United soccer team, who were visiting South Africa. It was amazing to see these superstar athletes awestruck at being in the presence of the most famous politician of this generation.
It was 1997, and the transformation of the country’s psyche was palpable. We were no longer the pariahs of the world, and suddenly Mandela had lifted South Africa from disgrace to worldwide acceptance and applause. He had done so gracefully and relatively peacefully. That is probably why nearly everyone introduced to Mandela would tear up, so moved were they by his stature and accomplishments.
Mandela’s family suffered. His daughters Zenani and Zindzi and their mother Winnie were exiled to Brandfort, a town hundreds of miles away from Johannesburg. They grew up without their father, sleeping on the floor. Mandela lost three of his six children, one of whom died while he was in prison. In June of 2010, his beloved great-granddaughter Zenii was killed in a car accident at the start of the World Cup Soccer Tournament.
Now, at 94, nearly 95, like most mortals in their twilight years, Mandela is frail, and in the hospital yet again, in serious condition.
All this is not to say that Mandela’s emphasis on facilitating a peaceful transition of power in South Africa has not been criticized. Many believed, and still do, that Mandela was too conciliatory and that too little was done to transform the South African economy. Indeed, to a large extent, economic power still remains mainly in the hands of Whites and a small Black elite. The country is grappling with enormous problems, including high unemployment and growing corruption.
Indeed, the new South Africa that owes its relative peace and prosperity to the transformative vision of Nelson Mandela is still a work in progress. But, whatever the future brings for the Rainbow Nation, Mandela will always be the man who turned a nightmare into a vision, a vision into a dream and a dream into a reality.
Editor’s note: Nadia Bilchik is a CNN editorial producer.