I had the privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela in person once, but before I write about the experience I want to tell you why that was important to me.
I vividly remember the first time I heard the word apartheid. It was my sophomore year of high school and I was in my global social studies class. I was 15 and, for the most part, I was miserable. I do not remember having a particular reason for being miserable. I had an okay boyfriend, who showed an interest in me beyond getting in my pants (well a little interest in something beyond that). I had relatively clear skin most of the time. I thought I knew what I wanted to do with my life by that age and was already working as an actor afterschool and on weekends, albeit off-off Broadway. I was also doing decently well in school. I was never, nor did I particularly strive to be, an A+ student. However, I was a solid B student who was well read in an unusual way for that age (reading all those plays by people like Shakespeare, Ibsen, Hansberry, Saroyan, and Williams is a bounty of literature too.) No, my misery came from elsewhere and, like most teenagers, the source was not easily identifiable. I now suspect it was an existential angst caused by my inherent desire to know that I would now, or perhaps someday soon, make a positive difference in the world.
History had always been my favorite subject in school. The past fascinated me. Instinctively I saw the study of it as a potential roadmap to a better future. When my teacher wrote the word apartheid on the board then explained its meaning and function in South African society, I was a little stunned. I couldn’t believe that the same Jim Crow crap was happening on the other side of the world. It was my immature view at the time that the rest of the world had to be more enlightened than the young and brash United States of America. I stood flabbergasted (as well as corrected).
I learned Nelson Mandela’s story much later, as many of us did in this country, through the tireless and provocative advocacy of his wife Winnie and their ANC supporters. And, like the initially quiet but burgeoning storm that became the civil rights movement in America, the demise of apartheid in South Africa eventually began to seem inevitable. You could see it in a prophetic sign of the times like the fall of the Berlin Wall. You could see it in the emotive works of activism by artists from there like Makeba, Fugard, Clegg, and Ngema.
I was working at Lincoln Center Theater when Ngema’s Sarafina made its début in the fall of 1987 for a short run before it quickly moved on to sold out houses on Broadway. The young people who made up the cast and crew of the show that resurrected the Soweto uprising in New York were phenomenal for their incredible talent but also for their unusual mixture of fortitude and innocence. The radiance surrounding these children resonated and clearly reminded their diverse audience that, in past struggles for freedom, so often the children suffered the most.
I remember clearly the first few days of February 1990 right before, during, and after Mandela’s release from prison. My eyes glued to the news reports and my hands clenched over my heart as the jubilation of the South African people seemed to burst through the television and rain all over me. Can everyone in South Africa sing beautifully? I was happy too. Beyond happy really, I was ecstatic. Light had triumphed over darkness and Madiba was home.
Throughout the next few years, as apartheid was slowly unraveling and Mandela became President of a country that under another administration had imprisoned him for over a third of his life, I watched and marveled at the conciliatory nature of the man. In almost every aspect of his political life he seemed intent on building bridges instead of burning them, which seemed incredible given how hate and social injustice had unnaturally disrupted his life. I wondered if I could have been so broad-minded in his place. I wondered if anyone else could have been.
So when I heard from a friend of mine that his company was hired to be the coordinators for an event promoting South African tourism that Mandela would be attending, I begged him to add me to the list of volunteers to help with the event. I’d never been a groupie type or a star struck type, too much New York in the blood — but I’d be damned if I was going to pass up an opportunity to possibly meet, well…my hero.
Divided into two parts, the event consisted of a reception and dinner at Remy in Midtown then a speaking and entertainment program at the Ziegfeld Theater across the street. Right off the bat my plans to meet Mandela were thwarted. The event organizer assigned me, along with several other indistinguishable female helpers clad in black dresses, to swag detail at the Ziegfeld. Swag detail is essentially filling the gift bags handed to the guests as they leave. It’s an extremely tedious part of any event — unless of course the swag is interesting — that usually takes place far away from the center of the main event activities. In this case, the swag consisted mainly of travel brochures for beautiful places to go and stay in South Africa, pens with beaded necklace holders in the same colors as the South African flag, and, by far the most interesting, a bottle of red wine from relatively young but maturing South African vineyards.
As soon as I could, I snuck over to the Remy to see if I could find the object of my admiration. Unfortunately, the place was mobbed both inside and out by many other admirers and a flank of press and photographers 3 people deep. After a short frustrating time standing outside the restaurant, I went back to my station at the Ziegfeld to help finish the bags and then move them nearer to the exit. By the time we finished the guests had come over to the theater and were already inside watching the program. I decided I’d make one last attempt to at least hear Mandela speak live.
Making my way to the second floor of the theater ostensibly to use the restroom I snuck pass the now closed concession area headed for the door leading to the orchestra seats of the theater. Just as I managed to get to within about 12 feet of the door, it burst open in front of me. Startled I stopped in my tracks which is a very good thing because if I hadn’t I might have done a header right into Mandela’s chest. It took me about a second to register who I was looking at and unconsciously I immediately took one or two steps back. My eyes must have been as big as saucer plates because Mandela’s brow crinkled, slightly perplexed, as he probably wondered whether I was going to continue getting the hell out of his way.
Instead, I took another second to register that he was tall. (I’m only a little over 5’3” so most people seem very tall to me.) I also noticed that he was dressed in a Batik patterned shirt that managed to make him look sophisticated and casual simultaneously. It was then that I noticed the security detail behind Mandela who clearly saw me not as a threat but as an obstacle, and then I’m not sure what happened.
I like to think it was my Mother’s incessant training in manners automatically kicking in when I needed it most because I stuck my hand out straight in front of me then directed it towards my idol and said, “President Mandela, it is an honor to meet you.” I don’t remember what he said exactly. It sounded like “you too” but I do remember he shook my hand and smiled. The smile did me in, because that smile was beatific. Then, just like that, he was gone.
I’d like to say I wasn’t mildly disappointed that Mandela and I didn’t sit down in the Ziegfeld lobby and have a nice long discussion of how prison changed him. You know where I’d ask something profound like, Mr. President do you think you were born a peacemaker or did you nurture your pacifistic nature in solitary confinement? No, as an alternative, I channeled my minor dissatisfaction at how we met into reading his autobiography for the answers I sought. And occasionally reveled in the memory of having briefly seen up close the aura of a great man.
I’ve been thinking a lot since I first heard that Mandela was very ill about his legacy of peace. I’ve been wondering where and in whom that legacy will shine so brightly next. I suspect, as a friend recently suggested that those people are hiding in plain sight among us, not necessarily waiting for the world to herald them for doing the right thing, but waiting instead for the next person to pick up the mantle and be a force for good and positive change in the world.
One last thing, like everyone I’ve been looking at a lot of video of Mandela lately and came across Johnny Clegg performing live his tribute anthem for Mandela’s freedom. Mandela makes a surprise appearance near the end of the song dancing and wearing the smile he gave me so many years ago. Click here to check it out then try to tell me it’s not a thing of beauty.