COLLEGE PARK, Md. – The recent death of Nelson Mandela has brought with it many memories for members of the Merrill College faculty who had an opportunity to cover South Africa’s anti-apartheid leader and former president. Anne Rosen, who taught News Coverage of Racial Issues during the fall, 2013 semester, was one of those reporters. She has written about her assignment while working for the Arkansas Gazette and we’re happy to share it with you here on the Merrill College news site.
In June 1990, I was in San Francisco covering a business story for The Arkansas Gazette when I saw the Oakland and San Francisco papers chocked with news about the arrival of Nelson Mandela who was making a ten-day victory tour after being released from prison only four months earlier. Oakland was the final stop of eight American cities.
Mandela was the face of a burgeoning movement fighting apartheid in South Africa, but he possessed little of the stature he would later claim as a world-renown civil rights leader. Mandela’s visit in 1990 was before South Africa instituted free and fair elections, before he was elected president of the African National Congress or the first black president of his country, before a white-run system of apartheid was dismantled, and before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
At that time, he was little more than a rebellious newly-released political prisoner who had served a 27-year sentence for his political opposition to the racist South African government. But the anti-apartheid movement garnered attention, especially as Mandela was elevated to martyrdom status by his imprisonment, and he was politically astute enough to come to America upon his release to leverage support and money.
Sensing a rare opportunity, I called my editor in Little Rock, Arkansas and asked him if I could stay on the west coast and extra day, cover the event and file a story for the paper’s front page. My editor readily agreed and I secured a press pass for the event. There were probably 20 other reporters and I who covered Mandela’s appearance, which included a small press conference followed by a musical concert and speech at the Oakland Coliseum Stadium.
We were shuttled in a van to the airport where Mandela and his wife, Winnie, emerged from the plane. Mandela waved to the crowd and his wife raised a clenched fist. They were greeted by children with bouquets of red and yellow flowers. One girl, the daughter of a former political prisoner in South Africa, cried after Mandela departed in his motorcade because she did not get to touch him.
Our van followed the motorcade to an auditorium near the stadium where we sat in front of a long table with Mandela on the other side. He was much smaller than I anticipated, but he flashed that irrepressible impish grin and greeted us warmly. I thought about how old and frail he was to be leading a revolution at age 71. He wore a dark suit and maroon-colored tie that barely fit his small neck.
Let me mention here that I am not a celebrity hound who is star-struck or easily swayed by status. If anything, I scrutinize famous people more than average people, especially as an advocate of the journalist creed of objectivity. As the daughter of a national reporter and a national print reporter myself for more than 30 years, I have met more world-renown celebrities, politicians, and mover-and-shakers than I like to admit.
During those interactions, I’ve witnessed brazen displays of innate charisma, egotism, bravado, brilliance, and raw leadership. So I prepared myself for yet another high profile figure with rock-star status. But the question and answer session we had with Mandela that day was like nothing I had witnessed in a political leader before. He exuded a gentle yet oversized generosity of spirit that comes only from people who are comfortable in their own skin.
Of course, we asked him about his time in prison. Amazingly, he expressed no bitterness or resentment toward his captives. His philosophy in dismissing years of ruthless torment was to rise above his enemies. He explained that hate was an ill-advised strategy that would hinder him from achieving his goal of unanimity. He appeared to have truly transcended the world of base human responses and possessed the unequivocal ability to forgive. (He later invited one of his white wardens to his inauguration as President.)
But Mandela was not about building himself up as the movement’s leader. He quickly turned the answer session to his measured rhetoric of “we” and said “our visit to America has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.” He was, if nothing else, the quintessential politician, and he was here on a mission to garner American support. He asked for continued government and private sanctions against institutions investing in the South African economy as a form of protest.
|He apologized for ending the conference, but he had a stadium of 58,000 people awaiting his arrival. The press was ushered to a front section of the stadium stage and when Mandela appeared two hours later, the stadium erupted in sporadic jubilation. He was greeted by Rep. Ron Dellums (D-CA), who had authored anti-apartheid sanction legislation. Reggae bands, gospel choirs and a 200-member choral group prompted Mandela to break into a hopping jig. The crowds, filling all the seats and the stadium field, went wild with cheers. He received a standing ovation before he even opened his mouth.
“It is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that the unbanning our organization came as a result of the pressures exerted upon the apartheid regime by yourselves,” he called out to the crowd in an eloquent and measured articulation. “You have inspired us beyond imagination…We say it is a tribute to the fighting spirit of our people, who are also your people.”
After giving credit to others and not himself for advancements, he launched into his pitch for continued American support. The words “we” and “our” were predominant, and he harkened to the inspiration of other civil rights leaders: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Fannie Lou Hammer and John Brown. He said schools in South Africa were still segregated, health care was inadequate, unemployment high, and housing scarce. One purpose of the American tour was to raise money for the ANC and educational and medical programs in South Africa. I quoted ANC officials that almost $3 million had been raised during the tour.
“The path ahead is daunting, but our resolve is strong,” he said. “We are at a crucial historical juncture. We cannot turn back. We shall not turn back. We need your support for this final stage. Now, more than ever, we call on you to redouble your efforts.”
In parting, he finally indulged in himself and made it personal, but only as a note of thanks and purpose. “Let me assure you, despite my 71 years, at the end of this visit I feel like a young man of 35,” he said with a beaming smile. “I feel like an old battery that has been recharged. And, if I feel so young…it is the people of the United States of America that are responsible for this. It is you, the people of Oakland, the people of the Bay Area, who have given me and my delegation strength and hope to go back and continue the struggle. You must remember that you are our blood brothers and sisters. You are our comrades in the struggle. Remember that we respect you. We admire you, and above all, we love you all.”
At the time, I could see the power and support he generated from the crowds, and I knew this would be a man to be reckoned with. But I had no understanding of how far he would succeed. Only now in retrospect do I see how far-reaching his vision was that day.
Anne Farris Rosen has been a journalist since 1980, specializing in coverage of politics, government, legal affairs and social issues at the international, national and local levels. Based in Washington, D.C., Rosen has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, and newspapers in Arkansas, Missouri and North Carolina. Most recently, she has contributed to websites maintained by the Pew Research Center and the Center for Public Integrity. Rosen has also worked as an off-camera reporter for London-based documentary film production companies and written books published by Simon & Schuster.