Meeting Mandela

A former Time correspondent was there 20 years ago when the great man was freed.

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Mandela, John Edgar Wideman (red shirt); Sylvester Monroe (white shirt); Feb. 11, 1990.

Twenty years ago, I was in Cape Town, South Africa covering the release of Nelson Mandela for TIME Magazine. It was one of the highlights of my journalistic career. Just hours after this great man walked out of Victor Verster Prison, I was sitting in the Cape Town City Hall just a few feet away from him and his wife, Winnie, as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. But make no mistake, there was nothing ordinary about the experience.

Just two days before, I'd taken custody of my then 12-year old son, Jason, and flown him from Chicago to Los Angeles, where I lived. Hours after he landed, I learned that my editors wanted me to fly to South Africa to meet with Jesse Jackson who was going there to urge the release of Mandela. No one knew for sure that Mandela would be released, but even though TIME had a bureau in Johannesburg, they wanted to make sure we would be all over the story. So, they called on the resident Jesse watcher, me. Consumed with guilt, I quickly learned the panic of being a single, working parent, frantically rushing to get my son enrolled in the local middle school, taking him shopping for new clothes and then trying to make it up to him by taking him to a Lakers' game before for leaving him with my girlfriend's mother and stepfather whom he had never met. My girlfriend was in Costa Rica studying Spanish.

As guilty as I felt, I was also thrilled at the possibility of being in South Africa, where I had never been before, if and when Mandela was released. When it happened, I was on the plaza of the Cape Town City Hall with thousands of excited black South Africans overjoyed at the news of the release of their beloved Madiba. Among Jesse Jackson's entourage were two other reporters, John Davis of WBBM TV in Chicago and Pamela Newkirk of Newsday, and noted author John Edgar Wideman ( "Brothers and Keepers"). Rev. Jackson's wife, Jackie and oldest son Jesse Jr. were also there along with my good friend and Ebony Magazine colleague Eric Easter, who was then an aide to Rev. Jackson.

As proof of what an extraordinary experience it was, John Davis, a tough, seasoned veteran reporter was about to conduct the first broadcast interview with Mr. Mandela when all of a sudden with his crew rolling tape, he just collapse in tears in Mandela's arms, sobbing, " Mr. Mandela, I am sooo happy for you." We still kid John about it, saying, "Man, get the interview first; cry later." While we all had a good laugh at John's expense, every one of us knew what he felt. I am not easily impressed, but I must confess that even as I kept my journalistic objectivity, I was in awe of the man. There was a kind of aura about him as I watched a man who had just spent 27 years of his life behind bars walk out of prison and give a speech as fiery and on point about the evils of apartheid as any he had given before he went to prison.

And yet, there was a calmness about him. When I got my chance to interview him, I asked Mandela how in the world he was able to be in the same room with white people and not hate them. And he said to me in the most quiet and humble voice, "If I had allowed myself to become bitter, I would have died in prison."

As I remember that extraordinary trip, I can't help but think that if every black child in America who has given up in the face of racism, poverty and social isolation could just be in the presence of this great man they would see that as long as there is life there is hope. For who could have imagined even when Mandela emerged from prison twenty years ago that apartheid would have ended shortly afterwards and that he would have become his nation's first black president, a Nobel laureate and one of the world's greatest inspirational leaders.

And who would have imagined that a poor black kid from the South Side Chicago housing projects could become a Harvard grad, journalist and author and sit in the same room with Nelson Mandela.

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