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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Mandela's Moment

-- By Tom Phillips

In 1990, when the South African government released Nelson Mandela from prison, the whole country was eager to see the man who had led the African National Congress and the anti-apartheid movement from behind bars for nearly 28 years.  But no one knew what he looked like.  Black South Africans wore T-shirts with a picture of Mandela when he was a young boxing champion, with a full face and cannonball shoulders.  

When he finally appeared a few days later at a packed soccer stadium in Soweto, he was a slim, white-haired man in a suit and tie, moving calmly through the crowds, with the bearing and manner of a king.  I was there with CBS News, and this is what I saw.  

At least 85 thousand people were in the stadium.  They had streamed from all around Johannesburg, walking, jogging, dancing and singing, crowding onto every available vehicle so that trucks looked like trees festooned with people.  Mandela was more than an hour late in arriving, but no one was bored.  The crowd made up a song on the spot and sang it as a call and response:  One side of the stadium would sing high, "NEL-SON MANDELA!"  and the other side would answer low, "NEL-SON MANDELA!"       

South Africa’s white police force kept their distance, sitting in cars outside the stadium, looking tense and surly.  Security inside was provided by “ANC Marshals,” boys in their teens who frisked everyone for weapons, and tried to keep the crowds moving.   Foolishly, I left the CBS News group to look for a vantage point among the people, and I came as close as I ever did to dying on the job.  A crowd was squeezed into a passageway blocked by more people on both ends, and I felt the air being forced out of my lungs.  But just then, somehow, the pressure eased and we began to move.  I found a place in the upper deck behind two of the very few white people in the crowd – a couple of middle-aged Anglican priests in their vestments.   

Finally, Mandela appeared.  A convoy of vehicles drove onto the track around the soccer field, and he emerged, waving.   He looked nothing like his picture, but it was him, slim and erect, calm and disciplined, ready to take up his role as leader of South Africa’s black majority.  But where would he lead them?   

Apartheid was still in force; housing, education, employment, health care all divided by race, with blacks getting the worst of everything.   In freeing Mandela, the government had committed itself to dismantling the racist system, but it had to be held to its word.   In this first speech following his release, Mandela laid out the terms of what would be a near-miraculous peaceful transition from oppression to majority rule.  

Over years of negotiation in prison, Mandela had refused to renounce violence, and he repeated that refusal to the crowd in Soweto.  He said the ANC would “pursue its armed struggle against the government as long as the violence of apartheid continues.”  But the main body and soul of the speech was a call for reconciliation.  The ANC, he said, is as opposed to black domination as it is to white domination.  Sternly warning his people against violence, he said if there was any fighting to be done, the ANC would handle it.  Their job was to show their good will, to demonstrate to whites that a South Afrrica without apartheid would be a “better home for all.”   

Mandela spoke for about half an hour, but most in the crowd were too excited to listen carefully.  They applauded his calls for decent housing, better education and a living wage for black workers.  But there was a buzz of conversation in the stadium throughout.  A CBS News correspondent on the scene told me he thought the speech was a flop.  I disagreed.   

At the end, the entire crowd stood up and sang the then-unofficial national anthem of South Africa, Nkoze Sikelele Africa.   Mandela and his wife Winnie stood side by side, their right fists raised in the black power salute.  In the upper deck, the Anglican priests joined in the same song and salute. 
(After the speech, I stood around waiting nervously until someone from CBS came upstairs to reunite me with the team.  While waiting I must have looked so anxious that an ANC Marshal offered a popsicle to cheer me up.) 

Mandela made his position unmistakable the next day, when we interviewed him at his home in Soweto.  Looking for some emotion and conflict, Dan Rather asked Mandela what his worst experience was in prison.  The man who had suffered torture, isolation, injury and disease for years on end, answered firmly and promptly, “I don’t remember.”  He claimed to have a great ability to forget unpleasant things, and so recalled nothing negative from all those years.  

Everyone knew there was a bottomless pit of grievances that cried out for revenge in South Africa.  But that’s not what Mandela was after.  Not revenge, and not even power.  Elected president in 1994, he served one term and declined to run for re-election, offering Africa a sorely needed example of a democratic transition.  

Mandela’s dream of full democracy and justice in South Africa is still far from being realized, and it may never be realized, but he never wavered in his vision or his struggle.   Alone among the leaders of the 20th century, his name embodied the hope of an entire nation, and he sustained that hope through every imaginable challenge for more than 50 years.  Last week, as South Africa kept its death-watch, the New York Times reported this street scene in Soweto:   "A pair of musicians — a young woman on bongos and a man on guitar — played the same tune, over and over, and sang the same words again and again, “Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela, Nelson Mandela.”

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

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