Mandela: My Brush with Greatness
It was winter in South Africa but the political season was hot, searing with the tensions arising from the crumbling of apartheid. The year was 1990, and Nelson Mandela had been free for only a few months after 27 years in prison. Other anti-apartheid activists were similarly tasting freedom for the first time in decades, returning home from prison or from exile around the world.
On this day in June, I slowly made my way toward the Voortrekker Monument outside of Pretoria. It’s a symbol of apartheid and shrine to the Afrikaner people who created that peculiar system of racial oppression. Confident of my outsider status, I made the mistake of thinking that my press card would somehow out-rank my black skin at this rally of thousands of Afrikaners for whom race was the defining feature of life.
While politicians made speeches from the monument steps, a rowdier crowd hugged the edge of the rally. Many had been drinking, and many were heavily armed. Some wore the khaki uniforms of the Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB), the farthest right wing of these right-wing people. I needed to pass through this gauntlet in order to hear what the politicians were saying up front. But that was not to be.
To the crowd, my skin color was like oil on a flame, igniting anger and prompting death threats. My three white colleagues – from the New York Times, the Detroit Free Press and Southam Newspapers of Canada -- seemed to give equal offense for being in my company and that of another black journalist.
The other journalist was Sylvia Vollenhoven, a black South African representing the Swedish newspaper Expressen. She is officially “colored” in the strange lexicon of apartheid. Her native language is Afrikaans language, so she understood the threats being made by the drunken crowd. But she kept her mouth shut, thinking it safer for the drunks to think that she too was an outsider who had inadvertently crossed the line into their turf.
We identified ourselves only as foreign correspondents for American and European newspapers. At the time, I worked for the Baltimore Sun and was stationed in South Africa on a three-year stint.
The Afrikaners called us “Mandela meisies” – Mandela girls – and sent us packing, fortunately unharmed. To them this was a slur, but I have carried it as a badge of honor these past 23 years.
Last week, I was back in South Africa for meetings with one of ICFJ’s partner organizations, so I had a remarkable opportunity to say farewell to Mandela. His body lay in state at the Union Buildings, the giant government complex in Pretoria where I had seen Mandela sworn in in 1994.
I didn’t manage to see the great man. Instead, I got stuck in traffic on the road to Pretoria, along with ICFJ president Joyce Barnathan and vice president Sharon Moshavi. We passed the Voortrekker Monument and I told them the story of my near-death experience there.
Then, as our taxi crept toward Pretoria, among the thousands who also wanted to say farewell, we made the strategic choice to do something more satisfying. We turned around and headed to the Mandela house in the Houghton neighborhood of Johannesburg, where he lived until his death.
The scene there was lovely. Little children brought flowers and placed them in the makeshift memorial that had grown in the days since Mandela died. Old ladies came and took pictures in front of the Mandela house. People had left poems, or signs that said things like “Thank you Tata,” acknowledging the lifelong sacrifice and unique contribution he had made to South Africa. A group from Cameroon showed up in full regalia, formed a circle and sang songs in tribute.
We bought T-shirts, chatted with the crowd, and had our pictures taken by an enterprising young man who made instant postcards of his customers standing next to a photo of Mandela. I plan to frame mine and put it beside a picture of me on the day I met Mandela in 1990 – to mark the beginning and the end of my exposure to this remarkable man.
Perhaps I’ll label them “Mandela meisie,” the term used as a slur by those Afrikaners so many years ago which I will always embrace as my special link to greatness.