I met Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa on November 14, 1991.
We met one year after Mandela was released from 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.
Mandela died Thursday. He was 95 years old.
He will forever remain an icon for justice, freedom and humility.
“Our nation has lost its greatest son, yet what made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human,” South African President Jacob Zuma said Thursday. “We saw in him what we seek in ourselves, and in him we saw so much of ourselves.”
As a journalist, I traveled to South Africa in 1991 with New York Mayor David Dinkins, who became friends with Mandela, and I wrote about their budding relationship and Mandela’s strong leadership of the African National Congress, the black activist organization that eventually stamped out apartheid in South Africa.
At an event for Dinkins, Mandela 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 while also calling for racial reconciliation among South Africa’s black and white citizens. He was more like a king than politician, more regal than calculating.
With dignity and grace, Mandela always seemed to put the needs of his people above his own.
And what’s more, after covering many hard-nosed politicians over the years, Mandela offered a rare and refreshing quality: he was humble.
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” President Barack Obama said Thursday at the White House.
“My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid,” Obama said. “I studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him.”
Today, I cover the White House. And after meeting Mandela and Obama, speaking with both men and shaking hands with both men, I can’t help reflecting on the uncanny similarities between the two world leaders: Both men were rooted in community activism and social justice; both are tall and lean; both men are soft-spoken and would prefer diplomacy as a means to resolve conflict; both men are well-read and students of history; both men have talked openly about their faith; and both men overcame improbable racial obstacles to become the first black presidents of their nations.
In Johannesburg 22 years ago, I asked Nelson Mandela a few questions, and scribbled his eloquent answers inside a notebook.
And at that particular moment in South Africa, 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 and gave in to calls for riots, 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.
“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 moment in history 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 that he sign the cover of the reporter pad on which I was documenting his words.
“To Michel Cottman. Compliments and best wishes. Mandela.”
Mandela’s autograph is framed and hangs on my wall – a constant reminder of a noble 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 unassuming power of a simple handshake.