By: April Ryan, aprildryan.com
The world is literally pausing, remembering this eras leader for justice, and equality. Nelson Mandela also known as Madiba, father of the nation is dead at the age of 95. Mandela’s iconic life has made so many revel in his transcending efforts to change the Apartheid system of white racist rule over the black majority in South Africa. His push was firm and strong for change. Because he was one of the biggest advocates to alter the racist governance in his country he was jailed for 27 years. But, when he emerged from prison he was at peace with an extraordinary calm. He forgave!
When Mandela was released from prison and took his first world tour, I was one of the many there as a first hand eyewitness. I was a local reporter in Baltimore in 1990. Humanity kicked in as I wanted capture the story, but as a black woman who knew of the story of the American Civil Rights movement and struggles, I wanted to see up close the essence of what today’s man of world change looked like.
My first up close glimpse of Mr. Mandela was at National Airport in 1990 as he and his wife Winnie Mandela emerged from the now defunct Trump Shuttle waiving at the awaiting group of reporters. A large gaggle of frantic reporters were on the tarmac awaiting this arrival for what could have been assumed was royalty. When you think of it, he was, royalty, unofficially proclaimed. Later in the day there was a press conference in a downtown Washington DC hotel in one of the ornate small rooms. Mandela was at the table speaking and reporters were raising their hands in desperation for a chance to be recognized and called on to ask a question of this unparalleled man of history.
My next Mandela sighting was when I traveled to Africa during the Clinton years for his historic Sub Saharan Africa trip. I saw my hero during a press conference with reporters from South Africa and America. It was more than perfect the pair answered questions in the vividly colorful gardens of the Johannesburg, Presidential building. I remember the respect and reverence and help former Preisdent Clinton offered and showed Mandela during that Press conference. Clinton actually helped Mandela down the steps to the podium. Also, during that trip in South Africa, White House reporters got a chance to go to Robin Island and stand in Mandela’s jail cell. Many purchased the replica jail cell keys at the gift shop. What shocked me was how Mandela had to work in the quarry at the jail. His work over the years damaged his eyes. Some stone particles were lodged behind his eyes creating a sensitivity to light to include bright sun and flash photography. We also got a chance to travel to Mandela’s home in Soweto. It was very small and I remember seeing his African Garb spread out over the length and width of the bed. That trip was as much of a trip to learn more about Nelson Mandela as it was to report on stories about the relationship between both countries. Because a lot of the focus on the trip was on Madiba, I remember going to the shopping center on the ward in Cape Town and purchasing a Madiba doll that was dressed in Mandela’s iconic attire, a beautiful long shirt and pants.
Also, during the Clinton years, September 22, 1998 to be exact, then former President Clinton hosted then South African President Neslon Mandela at the White House for a second State visit. There was an event in the East Room of the White House in honor of the South African President. Rev. Bernice King was the keynote speaker. It was like a fervent Sunday Morning black church sermon, the place was on such a high because of what she said about who Mandela was. What made it so poignant was that she is the daughter of our Civil Rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. After that event, I finally got a moment with Nelson Mandela. He shook my hand in the Cross Hall as he exited the East Room. We greeted one another and I told him how I admired him and “thank you.” Mandela responded with a “thank you” and moved on to the next hand and the next and the next.
During the George W. Bush years was the last time I saw Mr. Mandela in person. We had the schedule for the week and saw Nelson Mandela would be visiting the President. The South African Embassy officials said this would be his last visit to this country as he was much older and there were visible health issues including swollen legs and ankles which began making it harder for him to walk.
Knowing this would maybe be the last time I would encounter him, I wanted Mr. Mandela to sign my Madiba doll. Several of the reporters waited for Mr. Mandela. I was staked out too waiting for Mandela to leave the White House from the West Wing entrance. It did not happen. The South African leader was escorted out of a side door on the lower level and placed into a car. Before he got into the car, I called out from the corner of the National Security Council’s office to him, asking if he would sign my doll. Madiba heard me, waved his hand and smiled and proceeded to get into the car. I did not get a signature but I have some great memories and blessed to say I was there to chronicle some of his journey.
May you rest in peace Madiba.