While President Barack Obama prepares to visit South Africa this week, I was reminded of meeting Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on November 14, 1991.
We met one year after he was released after serving 27 years in prison for attempting to overthrow a cruel government that practiced widespread apartheid, physical abuse and racial discrimination against South Africa’s black citizens.
Today, Mandela, who is 94 years old, remains hospitalized and is listed in critical condition after being diagnosed with a lingering lung infection since June 8.
I traveled to South Africa in 1991 with New York Mayor David Dinkins, who became friends with Mandela, and I wrote about their budding friendship and Mandela’s strong leadership of the African National Congress, the black activist organization that eventually stamped out apartheid in South Africa.
At a private reception for Dinkins, inside a modest home in Johannesburg, Mandela greeted guests politely. He looked thin for his 6-foot frame, but he was healthy, gregarious, and stately – and his mind was sharp and focused as he spoke passionately about black children who are sick from hunger and called for racial reconciliation among South Africa’s black and white citizens. He was more like a king than a politician, more regal than calculating. And he seemed to always put the needs of his people over his own.
And what’s more – after covering many hard-nosed politicians in New York — Mandela offered a rare and refreshing quality: he was humble.
I shook Mandela’s hand, asked him a few questions, and scribbled his eloquent answers inside a notebook.
And at that particular moment, listening to his soft-spoken words, I was struck by his patience, his grace, and his ability to move past his 27-year imprisonment and focus completely on South Africa’s poor and disenfranchised who needed leadership, food, health care, education and housing that amounts to more than tin-roof shacks in Soweto.
For 27 years, Mandela had virtually no correspondence with the outside world as he was only allowed to receive and write a letter once every six months. The apartheid government spent years trying to bend Mandela to their will and break his spirit.
But it never happened.
At a time when Mandela could have unleashed his vengeance on South Africa’s governing body, Mandela was a selfless, non-violent leader who transformed South Africa – and the world. As I listened to Mandela talk about the critical needs of black South Africans, there was absolutely no bitterness in his voice, no anger, no talk of revenge, pay back or karma.
When I met Mandela in Johannesburg, he was a man who seemed at peace with his moment in history, a quiet leader — and a victim of apartheid — who promised, from that time forward, to abolish the racist form of government.
And he did.
“Our struggle has reached a decisive moment,” Mandela said in a mass rally in Cape Town after his release from prison. “We call on our people to seize this moment so that the process towards democracy is rapid and uninterrupted. We have waited too long for our freedom. We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts. To relax our efforts now would be a mistake which generations to come will not be able to forgive. The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts.”
I later wrote about Mandela becoming president of South Africa from 1990 to 1994. Like Dinkins, the first African American mayor of New York, Mandela was the first black president of South Africa. It was a bond that brought Mandela and Dinkins closer and Dinkins told me that his friendship with Mandela was one of the highlights of his life.
After my brief interview with Mandela, I wanted to savor the historic moment for years to come so I asked him for an autograph. He paused for a moment since I had nothing for him to sign. But then he was very accommodating and suggested he sign the cover of the reporter pad on which I was documenting his words. He said he felt this was appropriate so I quickly tore the cover off my pad and Mandela signed it:
“To Michel Cottman. Compliments and best wishes. Mandela.”
Mandela’s autograph is framed and hangs on my wall – a constant reminder of a civil rights activist who was bent but never broken. His patience in prison is a true testament to how faith can overcome adversity.
I was honored to meet Mandela, and walk in his world through Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town, Pretoria and Soweto, and ultimately feel the quiet power of a simple handshake.
(Photo: Courtesy of Michael Cottman)