My moment with Mandela

President Mandela shakes hands with Bertie Verwoerd, the 94-year-old widow of the late prime minister and architect of apartheid, Hendriek French Verwoerd, in Orania, a whites-only settlement founded in 1991. Mandela said the purpose of his visit was '"to unite South Africa where we cease to think in terms of color."

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — On a warm January afternoon in 1993, I was with a group of visiting US newspaper editors gathered at the suburban Johannesburg home of Allister Sparks, the noted journalist, for a backyard braai. Sparks had arranged for us to meet Nelson Mandela, and before long he appeared, wearing a Harvard sweatshirt.

We sat around a wooden picnic table under a straw thatched veranda. Mandela drank from a bottle of beer and talked easily, if cautiously, about his vision for South Africa. The country’s general election marking the end of apartheid was still 14 months away.

Earlier that day, our group had attended a church service in Soweto, where the buoyant mood of the worshipers and the hopeful expressions on their faces raised for us these questions: Why does there not seem to be more anger in the black community? Out of the history of white oppression of blacks, why is there no call for revenge?

“Our anger is channeled into mass demonstrations,” Mandela explained. “It is not aimed at rousing black anger at white people. It is aimed at the apartheid policies of the white government.

“We are alert to the fears of minorities. It is natural for them to ask ‘What will happen to me?’ These are genuine, legitimate fears. We want to allay those fears.”

At the time of our meeting, Mandela had been out of prison for three years. During his 27 years on Robben Island, he had gained an extraordinary worldwide stature that empowered him to negotiate on an equal footing with the white government of F.W. de Klerk for a democratic election that would lead to full citizenship rights for the country’s black majority.

Mandela talked with a quiet conviction about his beliefs in the principles of reconciliation, nation building and non-racialism. These ideas became the basis for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that, in1996, began a national process of healing by bringing out the truth of what had happened during the apartheid regime.

Mandela conveyed a spirit of resilience that sustained him in prison and left him absent feelings of bitterness toward either his captors or the apartheid government.

“What’s the point of being angry?” he asked.

Mandela’s companions at the cookout included Joe Slovo, the white chairman of the South African Communist Party and Pallo Jordan, who handled information duties for Mandela.

Over a lunch of barbecued pork and beef, Slovo explains how it is to be a Communist in South Africa, especially at a time when the party in Russia had disintegrated.

“Our interest is in establishing a democracy, in building a nonracial society in South Africa,” he said. “We have worked with the ANC [African National Congress] for more than 30 years. We were the first white political party to drop our color barrier, and we have fought for free elections.”

Still, he acknowledged with a smile, the roots of Marxism run deep, and eventually those ideas will be resurgent.

The delivery of a message interrupts the meal. The note says that Chris Hani, secretary-general of the South African Communist Party, suggested in a BBC interview in London that the Communists and the ANC might go their separate ways after the election.

A stricken look crosses Slovo’s face as he reads the message. He confers quietly with Mandela, who later observes coolly that such a separation would be appropriate.

In our conversations across South Africa, Mandela was often spoken of as a messianic figure who would be elected president in 1994. Richard Goldstone, an appeals court judge, who at the time was being accorded rising respect for his tough, evenhanded leadership of a judicial commission investigating the causes of violence, said it was Mandela’s leadership that influenced the patience and tolerance of the blacks. He called it the “Miracle of South Africa…a great achievement” in which the black political groups like the ANC were not being racist.

Even though it would be months before he was elected president, white South Africans were quietly sharing their concerns about who would follow Mandela. “He is 75 years old and those who succeed him may not be as tolerant or as committed to nonviolence.”

Twenty years later, those worrisome thoughts seem prescient.

Bob Giles, a veteran newspaper editor, is commentary editor for GlobalPost and former curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard. He traveled to South Africa in January 1993 with a team of US newspaper editors representing the American Society of Newspaper Editors.