I was working for USA Today when I saw Nelson Mandela for the first time in 1986, through a glass darkly, at Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town where he had been moved after the South African government transferred him from Robben Island.
I’d been in South Africa for several months, a kaleidoscopic experience that ricocheted from unbelievable ignorance and oppression to multi-racial civility, all in a single afternoon. Apartheid was still in existence but coming apart at the seams.
I had flown down from Johannesburg and on the plane was Mandela’s wife, Winnie. A white passenger voluntarily gave Mrs. Mandela his first class seat and there was a buzz throughout the plane about this beautiful and famous activist. Not one bit of animosity among the overwhelmingly white passengers.
Once at the Cape Town the airport, Mrs. Mandela seemed not to have any transportation, but stood alone at the curbside. Not to worry, reporters and their teams vied to take her to Pollsmoor. When one TV team snagged her, the wild English photographer I’d hired wasn’t about to lose his chance so we took off, going what seemed 100 mph on the highways, tailing the car carrying Mrs. Mandela.
Once at the prison, my photographer drove right up behind that car, which a guard cleared. When we drove up the guard asked me if I was one of the lawyers and I, of course, said ‘yes.’
Inside the building, we were kept about 30 feet away from where Mrs. Mandela and her husband were meeting on the other side of a glass brick wall, but I saw him.
The next time I saw him I was in New York City in 1990 when I had returned to The New York Times. A slew of black reporters had been dispatched to Harlem where Mandela was speaking. I found one colleague disgruntled by the fact that we were all feeding a white reporter in the office who was writing the story and would get the byline.
I returned to the newspaper after a year of teaching in Kansas and it didn’t bother me since I wasn’t going to be working out of New York for very long but shortly would return to the Washington, D.C. bureau.
Oh, the joy and celebration of that day; the crowded streets. The cheers for this South African legend.
After Mandela had been departed for more than an hour, night now, I stood in a long line at a public phone (before cell phones, Millenniels!) and called the desk and was told: “Why don’t you hang out there some more to make sure those people don’t riot.”
I wasn’t that recent a returnee to newspapers.
I said: “Listen, this has been a day of joy and celebration and now people are going home to catch Mandela and maybe a glimpse of themselves on TV before they get ready to go their J-O-Bs tomorrow. Do you suggest that reporters stay after a Yankee’s game is over, in case, those people riot? If you have nothing concrete for me to do, I ‘m going home now and get some sleep.”
Click. I was steaming.
Yet Mandela had endured 27 years of this stuff and worse so I looked for answers in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Near the end he talks about seeing the divine spark shared by all humans in even his meanest jailer.
I salute him for that, no apparent bitterness, forgiveness and generosity. I’m certainly not there… yet…and maybe never will be, but he was a glorious human being.
He was, as Time magazine wrote the year he graced its cover: ” on a more transcendent plane, where history is made and myths are forged, (he) is a hero, a man, like those described by author Joseph Campbell, who has emerged from a symbolic grave “reborn, made great and filled with creative power.”
He shall be sorely missed.
Karen DeWitt has a long distinguished career as a journalist, covering politics, but also has worked on political campaigns. She compares the later to the labor of a Hebrew working for the Pharaoh. She’s covered the White House and the national politics for The New York Times; foreign affairs and the White House for USA TODAY before joining that newspaper’s management as an assistant managing editor. She switched to television as a senior producer for ABC’s Nightline, where she wrote and produced the award-winning, Found Voices about the digitization of 1930s and 1940s interviews with former slaves. She returned to newspapers, as Washington editor for the Examiner newspaper and eventually left to help on local political campaigns. She has several blogs, but contributes mostly to a food blog called “I don’t speak cuisine” at peacecorpsworldwide.org and theroot.com.