Volunteers across North Texas will help observe Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday with the 67 Minutes project – a minute of public service for every year the Nobel laureate’s spent as a human rights lawyer, prisoner, peacemaker and as South Africa’s first democratically elected president. Commentator Lee Cullum shares memories of meeting Mandela a year before he won the position.
Nelson Mandela, 1993. That was the year I sat next to him at lunch in Johannesburg, with a group of editors traveling in South Africa. We had been invited to a casual Sunday barbecue by a British newsman and his wife, long and committed residents of that fated nation. Beef was grilling in the backyard when the great man arrived, without fanfare - tall, straight, at ease and wearing a Harvard sweatshirt.
I look now at photos of the two of us, and I see in him an entrancing figure, deeply wise, experienced to a degree so searing it had led him all the way back to a kind of knowing innocence, with nothing left that could disrupt his hard-won equilibrium. There was a ring on his left hand that escaped my notice all those years ago - a black stone, perhaps onyx or quartz, set in what appears to be gold.
That was no wedding ring. His then estranged wife, Winnie, was making nothing but trouble for him at the time. Word arrived during lunch that she and Chris Hani, a leader of the armed faction of the African National Congress, intended to form a new political party to oppose their old pals at the polls. Some were agitated by the news, including Joe Slovo, a white compatriot of Mandela who two years later would be dead from leukemia. But the soon-to-be president betrayed no reaction at all.
Mandela, however, was far from passive, as news reports soon revealed: less than 24 hours later Chris Hani withdrew from the unseemly cabal. Less than two months later he was assassinated by a right-wing fanatic from Poland. A neighbor of Hani, a white woman, alerted police to what had happened. No one mourned the loss more than Mandela and no one did more to calm a nation once again in the grip of rage.
“Tonight,” he said, “I reach out to every single South African, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white women, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know, and bring to justice, this assassin…Now is the time for all South Africans to stand together against those who, from any quarter, wish to destroy what Chris Hani gave his life for—the freedom of all of us.”
It took a year of fearful, fraught negotiations before elections could be held. Mandela became president and guided South Africa safely to shore without the bloodbath many had predicted. He loved his enemies, contained his friends, and even gave a job in his government to Winnie Mandela, a radiant demagogue as I learned when I met her at a party given by a mining CEO where she showed up without invitation.
Nelson Mandela had two women looking after him that Sunday at lunch, one black, one white. They fixed him a plate sparsely occupied by two tiny new potatoes and a little meat. They also admonished us at his table to stop heaping questions on Mr. Mandela and let him eat. Of course we did, with no regrets. His silence had an eloquence of its own. No words were necessary. It was Mandela’s presence that impressed, and made him unforgettable.
Lee Cullum is a veteran journalist and commentator living in Dallas.