I met Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, South Africa on November 14, 1991.
We met one year after Mandela was released from serving 27 years in prison for attempting to overthrow a cruel government that practiced widespread apartheid, physical abuse and racial discrimination against South Africa’s black citizens.
Mandela died Thursday. He was 95 years old.
He will forever remain an icon for justice, freedom and humility.
“Our nation has lost its greatest son, yet what made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human,” South African President Jacob Zuma said Thursday. “We saw in him what we seek in ourselves, and in him we saw so much of ourselves.”
As a journalist, I traveled to South Africa in 1991 with New York Mayor David Dinkins, who became friends with Mandela, and I wrote about their budding relationship and Mandela’s strong leadership of the African National Congress, the black activist organization that eventually stamped out apartheid in South Africa.
At an event for Dinkins, Mandela looked thin for his 6-foot frame, but he was healthy, gregarious, and stately – and his mind was sharp and focused as he spoke passionately about black children who are sick from hunger while also calling for racial reconciliation among South Africa’s black and white citizens. He was more like a king than politician, more regal than calculating.
With dignity and grace, Mandela always seemed to put the needs of his people above his own.
And what’s more, after covering many hard-nosed politicians over the years, Mandela offered a rare and refreshing quality: he was humble.
“I am one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s life,” President Barack Obama said Thursday at the White House.
“My very first political action, the first thing I ever did that involved an issue or a policy or politics, was a protest against apartheid,” Obama said. “I studied his words and his writings. The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they’re guided by their hopes and not by their fears. And like so many around the globe, I cannot fully imagine my own life without the example that Nelson Mandela set, and so long as I live I will do what I can to learn from him.”
Today, I cover the White House. And after meeting Mandela and Obama, speaking with both men and shaking hands with both men, I can’t help reflecting on the uncanny similarities between the two world leaders: Both men were rooted in community activism and social justice; both are tall and lean; both men are soft-spoken and would prefer diplomacy as a means to resolve conflict; both men are well-read and students of history; both men have talked openly about their faith; and both men overcame improbable racial obstacles to become the first black presidents of their nations.
In Johannesburg 22 years ago, I asked Nelson Mandela a few questions, and scribbled his eloquent answers inside a notebook.