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I saw Nelson Mandela in South Africa in 1995. Here’s what I recall about that trip, and about the impact that one man had on an entire nation.
He’d been elected president in 1994, and a year later, the new South Africa was preparing for the first round of free local elections. So there was still a sense of giddy hope and celebration everywhere you went.
But there was also a sense of just how tenuous this whole transition to democracy and black majority rule was. The level of violence in Johannesburg was frightening. Few people walked the streets with a sense of security. I drove around with a black Soweto-born producer named Milton. He moved through Johannesburg with intense caution. Violent crime, including car-jackings, were rampant, so when we came to a stop, he’d look around with real fear, ready to hit the gas and run from the approach of anyone — or any vehicle — that looked menacing.
Milton had grown up in the dusty streets of the Soweto township. He’d lived through Apartheid, witnessed the hard hand of the ruling Afrikaans’ police force that terrorized his community. But that year he was full of hope. Despite the threat of lawlessness in the streets, he could now vote in free elections… and Nelson Mandela was his president. I asked Milton, “What does Mandela mean to you?” He thought for a few seconds and said simply, “To me, Mandela is a god.” In any other context I might have dismissed that as trite, but I knew he meant it. There was little else to say.
On the same trip, I had dinner with a white, wealthy wine maker in Capetown. In the context of South African politics, he was a liberal. He supported the transition to black majority rule, but he’d benefited from the privileges that apartheid conferred on whites like him. He worried: would he lose his family vineyards? Would his business survive? Did the blacks really have the where-with-all to govern? Then I asked him what he thought of Mandela? He said, “Without Mandela, this country explodes. He is the glue that holds us all together.”
Back in Soweto, Milton, my guide and now friend, brought me to a rugby game. Not just any rugby game: it was the first time the South African national team played in the black township. It was an extraordinary day: rugby, the game of the white oppressor, being played in the heart of black Soweto. The crowd was black. The players were white, but for the first time in the country’s history, some of the umpires were black. I asked one of them what the day meant to him. He told me, “today I am not a colored referee. For the first time in my life I am a South African referee!”
Mandela understood the powerful symbolism of the day, and made a surprise appearance at the stadium. A small group of us reporters had a chance to meet with him. He exuded genuine joy – and didn’t want to talk about the past; about what rugby used to represent. With a playful twinkle in his eyes, he waved away most of our questions, and told us simply, he was in Soweto to enjoy a game; it was a new day for South Africa.
His security detail drove him on to the field, and he got out and headed for the crowds — virtually unprotected — waving, smiling, even dancing. The crowd roared. Mandela laughed – he even danced — and seemed to hold the entire stadium in his arms.