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The Day I Met Nelson Mandela

Spending time with my hero is more than an indelible memory; his lessons inspire me to this day

By Richard Harris | December 11, 2013
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Richard Harris is a freelance writer. He was senior producer of the 2013 PBS documentary Guns in America. Follow Richard on Twitter at @redsox54.

(Next Avenue is republishing this reminiscence in tribute to Nelson Mandela, who passed away December 5.)

Of all the things I witnessed during my 40-year adventure in journalism, one scene stands out more than almost any other — something I saw 23 years ago when I was a producer at ABC’s Nightline. I flashed back to it recently as Nelson Mandela has battled health problems.
 
It was February 1990 and Mandela had just been freed after 27 years in jail. The world’s most famous political prisoner was preparing to make his first public address on the balcony of Cape Town City Hall. I was racing from the airport to hear him.
 
From the back seat of my taxi, I glanced into the next lane and saw a flatbed truck packed with black South Africans cheering wildly. Then I looked beyond the truck and witnessed a starkly different scene. On a finely manicured golf course, a group of whites were putting on the green, oblivious to the history that was about to unfold just a few miles away. It was a perfect microcosm of South African life.
 
I reached the sprawling plaza in front of City Hall and the euphoria and tears among the throngs were unlike anything I had ever experienced. Mandela stepped out onto the balcony before a cheering crowd, clearly aware of his international stature, and said, “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you the people.”
 
And in that speech heard around the world, he concluded with words he had uttered back in 1964, just before he was sentenced to life imprisonment: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony. It’s an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it’s an ideal for which I’m prepared to die.”
 
I wasn’t there merely to witness this historic moment. I was there on assignment and hoping against hope that Nightline would get to be the first U.S. outfit to interview Mandela.
 
We’d spent much of the previous two years appealing to his “handlers,” trying to persuade them that since our boss, Ted Koppel, had already demonstrated his commitment to telling South Africa’s story to America, he was the best choice to conduct that historic first interview. A few days later, we received the call we’d been waiting for.
 
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The Road to South Africa
 
I’d been fascinated by Mandela’s struggle and the politics of South Africa long before I joined Nightline in 1987. I had read Alan Paton’s anti-apartheid novel Cry, the Beloved Country in high school, and in college I attended a special seminar on South Africa with one of the foremost scholars on the country, Gwendolyn Carter. And while Mandela had long been a personal hero of mine, it never occurred to me that I might one day get to meet him.

My path toward South Africa began shortly after being hired as chief guest producer at Nightline, when I was teamed up with Tara Sonenshine, now the under secretary of state for public diplomacy, who had produced a number of interviews for an award-winning special series Nightline had done in South Africa in 1985.
 
At this time, anti-apartheid protests were in full swing outside the South African embassies in Washington and other world capitals. International pressure on Pretoria to free Mandela was building and a movement was slowly fomenting. Since journalism offers a front-row view of history, this was my chance to grab a seat. 
 
The sea change began when F.W. de Klerk became South African president in 1989 and began dismantling the last vestiges of apartheid. When De Klerk lifted the 30-year-long ban on Mandela’s African National Congress, known as the ANC, the main opposition to the government at the time, it was a sign that Mandela might soon be free.
 
Tara and I were already laying the groundwork to secure the first interview with Mandela. We had taken several trips to talk with the leadership of the ANC (then in exile in Zambia) and those close to Mandela in South Africa.
 
As we met with key officials of the ruling National Party and the ANC, we had one vivid reminder after another of why Mandela’s fight was so important. Among the images that remain to this day is one of Sandton, the affluent Johannesburg suburb where we stayed. We drove past a Mercedes-Benz dealership next to an upscale shopping mall, which was parked just yards from the squalor of a township where black families were crowded into shacks made of corrugated metal and cardboard.
 
It’s not that America doesn’t have similar problems or that they don’t exist elsewhere in the world, but the situation in South Africa — near-total oppression of the country’s mostly black population by the white minority — was hard to wrap our heads around.

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Face-to-Face With My Hero
 
Black South Africans had seethed with rage during the years of Mandela’s incarceration. So when he stepped outside his Soweto home on the morning of our interview, the first thing he did was greet the young people lined up beyond the fence and concertina wire that surrounded his property. What I recall, vividly, is a trim, 71-year-old man, more salt than pepper in his hair, standing ramrod-straight in a crisp suit and tie.

Mandela’s nearly three decades in prison — much of it confined to a small cell — would have broken a weaker man. But when the leader of the anti-apartheid movement recounted his life in isolation and the friendship he’d developed with his jailer, he did so without a note of bitterness.
 
In all my years producing television and radio news, during which I’ve met heads of state, the rich, the famous and the infamous, I had never actually been starstruck — until I met Nelson Mandela. Plenty of celebrities have charisma, but few exude such an unshakeable sense of moral authority.
 
“Madiba,” as he is fondly called in his homeland, did concede that spending 27 years in prison “at the prime of your life is a tragedy.” But he also said that time gave him “the opportunity to think about problems and to reflect on my mistakes.”
 
Following Mandela’s Example
 
Parallels can be drawn between America and South Africa. Both have histories of sanctioned segregation and oppression, both elected a black man to serve as president — and both still have much work to do on the issue of race relations.
 
When I first arrived in Washington in the late 1970s as a producer for NPR, our capital was a very different city than it is today. Prominent Democrats and Republicans would duke it out by day, then after work put aside their political differences and go out for drinks and continue their policy debates civilly.
 
Over the decades, it seems like red America and blue America have only grown further apart — and more hostile. The poisonous partisanship that passes for governance has become so toxic that little gets accomplished. These days, everything seems to be about pandering to special interest groups. And often, racial tensions lay just beneath the surface.
 
Nelson Mandela, by contrast, is the exemplar of uniting antagonistic factions. He is one of the true international heroes of our lifetime. If a man can emerge after nearly three decades in prison then make peace with the people who sent him there, why can’t our leaders set aside their petty disagreements and work together to move our country forward?
 
Maybe change needs to start at the grassroots level so it can filter up. If each of us could embody even a fraction of Mandela’s courage, especially as we grow older and (one would hope) wiser, perhaps we could begin to solve some of our most vexing problems.

As President Barack Obama said in his eulogy: "We will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. So it falls to us — as best we can — to forward the example that he set."