On meeting Mandela
Journalists are not easily impressed. We pride ourselves on our skepticism. (Most advisable of us, may I add.)
But I confess to having been in awe of Nelson Mandela, and not just in theory. I met him, spent about an hour with him — or, to put it more accurately, I spent about an hour in his presence.
It was in October, 1994, Mandela was the new president of South Africa and on a visit to the United States, seeking financial investments for his country. While in New York, he stopped in to speak to the editorial board of the New York Times, as people ranging from heads of state to political candidates did on a regular basis.
At the time of Mandela’s visit to the old Times building on West 43rd Street, I was a member of the editorial board. When I heard he was coming, you would have thought it was 40 years earlier and he was Elvis. I had to be at that meeting.
This was not difficult in theory. Any board member could sit in on any editorial board meeting with an invited guest, though often – unless the guest was a political celebrity of Mandela’s stature — only those with expertise in the subject at hand would turn up. The board had then, as it does today, specialists in everything from science to foreign affairs.
I had a specialty, all right. I was the board’s local yokel, as I called myself. My beat was New York — the government and politics of New York City and State. I wrote about the budget mess in Albany, about City Council elections and about the last gasp of the city’s squeegee men, a target of the mayor at the time, Rudolph Giuliani.
The aftermath of apartheid, divestment, investment, land reform, the townships of Cape Town and Johannesburg — what did I know about those issues other than what I read? And let me tell you, superficial knowledge was not even vaguely enough for editorial board meetings. Many board members had academic credentials, had been foreign correspondents, had worked in think tanks.
But — I could not stay away. It was Mandela.
So I went and listened to colleagues ask probing questions about land reform, the future of the country’s diamond and gold mines, the disparities between rich and poor. Others asked about South Africa’s relationship with other countries on the African continent, about trade and the status of the African National Congress, Mandela’s party.
Sitting in the board’s old conference room, I was as silent as the framed portraits of former board editors on the walI. I listened and I nodded and arranged my facial features into that sage look that we all assume when we know it is expected of us. But (most uncharacteristically), I dared not ask a single question. Better to hold my counsel than sound naïve, I figured.
Mandela was as advertised. He was quick, engaging, able to give a smart answer to the most complex question, equally adept at challenging and parrying when he wanted to. I remember thinking, how did he develop this skill during his 27 years in prison?
My awe of the man, I learned in that conference room, was well-placed.
After about an hour with us, Mandela had to move on. We each approached him to shake his hand and thank him, one at a time. And then it was my turn. I almost made it. But not so fast.
The political-prisoner-turned-president got a playful look on his face, fixed his eyes on me as if I was the only person in the room and said, smiling, almost teasing, “You did not have anything to ask Mandela?” Oh my. “You did not say anything.” Sigh. “There is nothing you want to know?”
So. He’d noticed my impersonation of a mouse. I am sure I blanched. I told him I only covered cities — New York City, really — and was not a student of South Africa. I did not say I was afraid of embarrassing myself – but I knew he knew.
“We also have cities in South Africa,” he said, smiling even more broadly and, I swear, winking. “You can ask me anything.”
Next time, I mumbled. By now I was a wreck, stammered a little, said good bye.
A missed opportunity. But maybe not. I’ve talked to a few of my former colleagues since Mandela’s death, to ask them their recollection of the meeting. Most don’t even remember it. I cannot forget it.
The encounter left me with a vivid memory, with a revealing anecdote about one of history’s true gifts — not because of what he said, but because of who he was. In a crowded city in a crowded room, and on a tight schedule, Mandela spotted the one person who never said a word, and with wit and good humor, he called her (me) on it.
As many have observed about Mandela, he had a sense of humor, he was not afraid to show it — and he liked the ladies. The local yokel was glad to have met him.
And she still is.
PHOTO (INSERT): Former President Nelson Mandela holds a symbolic millennium candle through the bars of the prison cell he occupied for 27 years on Robben Island, December 31, 1999. REUTERS/Files