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.