Sunday, December 8, 2013

Mandela and Me: Meeting The Man and Shaking His Hand

Nelson Mandela, center, flanked by Gov. Michael Dukakis,Winnie Mandela, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Boston Mayor Ray Flynn and others before his speech at Boston’s Charles River Esplanade. AP archive photos.

ON a mild June morning a cluster of reporters is huddled in a private airport hangar at Boston’s Logan International Airport.

The air is thick with excitement. The Man himself is due to arrive in moments. The gathered press corps uses the time, chatting about nothing in particular – just filling in the blank space until the arrival.

Interestingly enough, Christopher Reeve is in the airport hangar, awaiting a plane to take him away from Boston. This is before that awful riding accident. No one approaches him. Frankly, everybody’s mind is on an actual superman.

At last the plane arrives. The excitement among the normally cynical journalists is now palpable. There is a collective hush, a holding of the breath. The small plane, Yours Truly does not recall the make/model, slowly rolls to a stop. After a few interminable minutes, the door opens and a red carpet is rolled out.

Stepping out of the maw of the plane, just steps away from the press corps, is Harry Belafonte. A few claps resound. The freedom fighter nods his hello to a captive audience. Then, The Moment. The occasion for which we have all been handpicked. An event important enough that we needed State Department clearance to be standing on this hallowed ground. Quoting Frankie Beverly, Yours Truly, a fledgling journalist at the time, silently muses, "This is the place, y'all."

Issuing forth from the airplane: Nelson Mandela, followed by sustained cheers. Some of these seasoned, hardened journalists don’t outright cry but some tear up. Yours Truly, the youngest journalist present, is tongue-tied. Heretofore in my new journalism career, dating to J-school (journalism), I've met any number of prominent folk: pols, scribes, moguls, ministers, master musicians, movie stars, sports icons. Never before or since have I been impressed, in utter awe.

Here is a man – a human being – who commands and deserves our reverence. Finally, someone who merits his ring being kissed. Mr. Mandela greets and shakes hands with each of us, taking care to look each of us in the eye. Did he just give the hand of Yours Truly a grandfatherly squeeze or is my imagination running away with me?

The leader of the African National Congress has a full day ahead, including a speech at the Charles River Esplanade, (see video above of speech below) and a visit to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Boston is the first U.S. stop on his world tour after nearly 30 years in a South African prison, a term that has ended just a few months before. His crime? – the world knows all too well – demanding some justice from the white power structure.

This Mandela meeting continues to be the highlight of my journalistic career. Over the years since his release, I’ve held my breath, hoping he would not prove all-too human by committing some asinine indiscretion. It never happened – not to my knowledge, anyway.

Nelson Mandela receives a bust of John F. Kennedy from Sen. Edward Kennedy at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. Looking on are Winnie Mandela, as well as several members of the Kennedy family, including Eunice Shriver, former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Joe Kennedy Jr.

My admiration has only grown, and I’ve always found it amusing the way he handled detractors. For instance, he divorced Winnie Mandela for some reasons we will never know, regardless of whether it involved any assumed infidelity, mendacity or the furtherance of his political career.

Recall when he was shacking up, or living with a woman without benefit of a marriage. Some Western leaders tried to fix their collective mouths ever so gingerly to chide Mr. Mandela. His response, “We’re adults.”

Similarly, he silenced his would-be critics on the matter of his embracing the likes of Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat and Muammar Gaddafi, that troika of state enemies of the West. Without skipping a beat, he reminded tip-toeing critics that the trio supported the ANC in its struggles against apartheid when the West was mute or slow to act on the subject. (See video below that includes footage of meetings between Nelson and Fidel).

The subtext, “You lack the moral authority to dictate with whom I should associate.” Mr. Mandela unequivocally acknowledged these men as ANC friends and gave the world to know that they would be treated accordingly. The West had assumed too much, he’d asserted in more than one interview. It was wrongly assumed, Mr. Mandela stressed almost incredulous, that "their enemies should be our enemies."

On both occasions, would-be critics had to shut it because they did lack the moral authority to dictate anything to Nelson Mandela. For those who profess to the Christian way of thinking, Mr. Mandela is the most prominent example – outside of Jesus Christ – of forgiveness.

He forgave his enemies; he embraced them when they least deserved it. Very few human beings could have orchestrated a bloodless exchange of power the way Mr. Mandela was able to in South Africa. “We had a government which had slaughtered our people, massacred them like flies," then-President Mandela said during a press conference in Cape Town with then-President Bill Clinton.

“It was very repugnant to think that we could sit down and talk with these people, but we had to subject our blood to our brains and to say without these enemies of ours, we can never bring about a peaceful transformation in this country. And that is what we did.”

Nelson Mandela absorbing the adoration of the Charles River Esplanade crowd in Boston before his address.

Largely because of his sacrifice apartheid is dead. Sure, it will take at least several generations before nonwhite South Africans fully enjoy all of the opportunities of their white counterpart. But the die has been cast; the seeds planted. The yields are being realized at this moment in history.

Nelson Mandela was a serious planter, laboring in the face of unyielding, unkind and fickle human nature. He fought the good fight. That’s why journalists gathered in an airplane hangar once upon a time were near tears and one cub reporter was speechless. A few days ago the world mourned – and continues to – when he went to his rest.

May God give Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela much rest and much peace. He deserves it.

Visit to learn more about the various memorial services and homegoing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.

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