In 1993, I got a fellowship to go to South Africa — a country that, like my own, had racially segregated its citizens. The vestiges of apartheid were slowly disappearing. Nelson Mandela had been released after 27 years in prison. The country was writing a new constitution. A new nation was being born and the once unthinkable — the election of a black South African as president — was about to take place.
No longer would I need to travel as an “honorary white,” which the government stamped on the passports of the few black Americans who ventured there. It was now time to explore this country that had long wrestled with apartheid, contrasting it to America’s segregated behavior.
I had three ambitious goals for the trip:
• Meet Nelson Mandela, this extraordinary man.
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• Get out into the countryside in order to tell the story of those far away from the political center.
• Visit the nation’s game parks to see the animals in their natural habitat.
After a month of traversing this country, which is almost twice the size of Texas with a population of 50 million people, I checked two items from my list.
To my amazement, I had seen the beauty of this nation whose blooming Jacaranda trees welcome the dawning spring. I had spent the night in a game reserve where I felt the thunderous hoofs of a charging rhinoceros, saw the grace of gazelles and walked among the zebras.
From Johannesburg to Durban to Cape Town, I ventured deep into life and the lives of South Africans. I met a group of women forestry workers whose melodious singing I could hear miles before our encounter. As they cleared the bark from the eucalyptus trees, we talked through an interpreter. They said that despite my funny speech, there was no mistaking my ancestors had come from there.
But Mandela proved elusive; my requests received neither a yes nor a no.
My month was coming to a close. As the rewriting of the constitution neared its conclusion, the world’s media were descending on South Africa, gearing up to cover the upcoming elections. Everyone wanted access.
With only five days left until I had to leave for home, I made a return trip to The Sowetan.
At the outset of my excursion, I had met and talked with the staff at The Sowetan, one of the oldest black-edited daily newspapers in the country. The paper covered the uprisings in Soweto Township, where Mandela and many African National Congress leaders lived. It had gained prominence for the valiant efforts of its staff to report during apartheid and the government publishing bans placed on it.
While meeting with the managing editor, who had been away earlier that month, I spotted a flier on his desk with a picture announcing Mandela’s upcoming visit to the newspaper. I asked if I could attend that meeting and he granted permission.
On the day of the visit, the paper was abuzz: ringing phones, busy chatter, anticipation circling the room, many too excited to work. I perched near the photographers. When Mandela entered the room, a hush fell.
This is an unbelievable moment, I thought to myself. Here is the warrior who had been in battle — sent off for more than 27 years — finally returning in triumph, yet humble, to thank those who had fought for his cause.
As he moved from person to person, smiling, shaking hands, exchanging personal reminiscences and switching languages two or three times in the conversation, my eyes filled with water.
As he drew close, I offered my hand. Before I could speak, he said, “I see we have an American here.” His remark erased all the questions I had anticipated asking, and I simply said: “How do you know I’m an American?” Clearly, he was in control of the conversation, never answering my question but directing where he wanted it to go.
He smiled, welcomed me to his country and moved on.
I left South Africa two days later, having achieved what I had set out to bring home: a cherished gift, the memory of meeting this humble giant.
Carole Carmichael is the assistant managing editor of community engagement. Reach her at email@example.com