COMMENTARY: I Remember Nelson Mandela

Cape Charles Wave

December 7, 2013

Rarely is anything printed in the Wave that does not relate directly to the Eastern Shore. But the passing of Nelson Mandela compels me to write about what he meant to me. I offer this commentary to those who may be interested, while recognizing that it is not for everyone.

Among the early accounts of Mandela’s death December 5 at age 95 was a striking quote from, of all people, Arnold Schwarzenegger. He said: “President Mandela’s life is the closest thing we have to proof of God.” I would call that an overstatement, but I agree with the sentiment that Mandela, at least within the group of people we label politicians, was heads and shoulders above all the others. Mandela was a modern statesman in a time when the word seems obsolete.

Somewhere in my old collection of VHS tapes I have the Sunday morning recording I made of Mandela’s release from prison February 11, 1990, after 27 years of confinement. At the time I was training for my upcoming assignment to South Africa as a political aide to the U.S. ambassador.

I arrived in South Africa in June, just four months after Mandela’s release from prison. The country was in a state of hypertension, with all races fearful that a civil war would shortly erupt. For more than a decade, the conventional wisdom had been that war was inevitable.

This was where Mandela showed his genius for toughness encased in humility. During the negotiations between his African National Congress and the white ruling government, his eloquence, humility, intellect, determination, and yes – sense of humor – eroded the white power structure’s long-held conviction that a black president would run their nation into the ground, just as they had seen happen in Zimbabwe and elsewhere.


I was privileged to see Mandela on a few occasions, once up close. In April 1991 I assisted with a visit by 17 U.S. senators and congressmen to South Africa under the auspices of the Aspen Institute. It was a crucial time for negotiations in South Africa, with threats by both sides to pull out. Mandela could not have been busier, but well understanding the power of the United States, he took the time to come and speak to the congressmen.

I remember nothing of what Mandela said to the congressmen regarding politics, negotiations, and so forth. But almost 23 years later I have a crystal-clear memory of his introductory remarks.

Remember that this was a man who after 27 years in prison had been free for little more than a year. During that short time he had traveled the world and been feted by the great and the powerful. And this is the story he told us:

“A few days ago I was flying back to South Africa and had to change planes in Nairobi. While waiting in the airport, lots of people were coming up to speak to me. Finally a young girl came up to me and shook my hand. She said she was so honored to meet me, it was the greatest thing that had ever happened to her, and she would always remember it. ‘But please tell me one thing,’ she said — ‘Who are you?’”

I still laugh when I remember Mandela telling that story. It so epitomized his humility.

At the end of his interaction with the congressmen came the obligatory photo ops – every politician had to shake hands with him in a one-on-one photo, just as big-game hunters in earlier years returned from Africa with their animal trophies. I watched the line of congressmen waiting their turn, and I watched Mandela as he patiently smiled for each shot of the camera. To me it seemed trivial – this man had more important work to do.

And then one of the leaders of the Aspen Institute invited me to join the line to meet Mr. Mandela and press upon him the obligatory handshake. But such was my admiration for this man that I politely declined. I honestly did not want to bother him.

Today, nearly a quarter of a century later, do I regret not being able to include a handshake with Nelson Mandela among my life’s “trophies”? During all these years he has been, after all, my greatest living hero.

No, I can honestly say that I have no regrets. I do appreciate the opportunities I had to see and hear him in person. But my greater appreciation is for the example he showed the world – first in forbearance during his decades of political imprisonment, then his genius in uniting an apartheid nation (the highlight was the 1995 Rugby World Cup), and finally his refusal to become “President for Life,” instead stepping down after one term.

To paraphrase Arnold Schwarzenegger’s epitaph, I would say that Nelson Mandela’s life is the closest thing we have to proof of an honest politician.

(My favorite song about Nelson Mandela, which I’ve been listening to for over 20 years, is Brenda Fassie’s “Black President,” performed before Mandela actually was elected president. Click above for her performance.)



5 Responses to “COMMENTARY: I Remember Nelson Mandela”

  1. Antonio Sacco on December 7th, 2013 12:02 am

    I never was never a fan of Mandela, he was a communist, but I will mourn the eight thousand or more of our brave servicemen killed on this day, December 7, 1941. Mandela may have freed the Blacks in South Africa, but I and eighteen million brave American Service Men and Women in uniform, FREED the world. The song from that war will live in infamy “GOD BLESS AMERICA.” We are but a few left from that war. This day December 7, 1941, will be remembered forever.

  2. Kathleen Mullen on December 7th, 2013 10:01 am

    While George has a favorable impression of Mr. Mandela I must add an opinion to the contrary. While his is based on personal experience during his career with our government I base mine on reports found in print and video which are available to all so they may form their own opinion. First, Mandela never was close to demonstrating Godly characteristics if you are comparing him to the God of the Bible. If you are comparing him to a god of your own imagination then I can’t argue with that. Mandela incited violence against innocent people and was labeled a terrorist (along with his group the ANC) by none other than Ronald Reagan. It wasn’t until 2008 that Mandela’s name was removed from the list by then-President Bush. Much information is available on the Internet to substantiate my opinion so I encourage anyone reading this to get the facts for themselves.

    GEORGE RESPONDS — First time I’ve been confused with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but no complaints there. Mandela, along with then-South African President F.W. de Klerk, succeeded together in preventing civil war that could have caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, and they well deserved the Nobel Peace Prize they both received. Every living U.S. president who is physically able will attend Mandela’s funeral — whether Democrat or Republican.

  3. Dana Lascu on December 7th, 2013 3:15 pm

    Thank you, George, for eloquently expressing your admiration for this noble freedom fighter who was instrumental in ending the brutal, institutionalized racial segregation (apartheid) in South Africa.

  4. Lenora Mitchell on December 7th, 2013 4:21 pm

    Great article George, thanks for remembering Mandela.

  5. David Gammino on December 9th, 2013 3:18 pm

    Thank you George for your thoughtful commentary. I doubt we will ever again witness a leader of such grace and courage as Mandela.