08 July 2007

Nelson Mandela

The former yearbook staffer (can you tell?) with Mandela,
Dan Rather, producer George Osterkamp (far right),
and our CBS News crew in Cape Town, 1994.

My meeting with Nelson Mandela, one grey morning in Cape Town, consisted of little more than a handshake, after which I fell back to the shadows, listening to his interview with Dan Rather. We’d come to South Africa to cover the first multiracial presidential elections in South Africa’s history, in 1994, and Mandela was the last of our interviews with each major candidate. His rivals included F. W. De Klerk, the man who’d freed him from prison, four years earlier, and a few others who’d be delighted to see him return to Robben Island.

Surrounded by staff people and a security team, Mandela entered the room with something like the burst of excitement that accompanies the arrival of any big-shot politician for an interview with an American television crew. But the resemblance between Mandela and any other politician ended right there. The excitement didn’t come from him, it came from the rest of us. I’ve seldom met anybody less prepossessing, and apart from his height and his good looks, he might have walked into any room and never have been noticed.

Excepting that he was already a legend. By the time I was in college, his myth was fully developed and ardently subscribed to by everyone I knew: there were boycotts and rallies in his name on campus, his picture hung on dorm walls, his imprisonment (which was to last 28 years) understood as a universal symbol of injustice.

The son of a tribal chief, Mandela had a distinguished career as an attorney and activist. Given that background, it’s only reasonable to assume that he must have possessed some facility, at some time, for glad-handing and grandstanding. But during his captivity, he’d lost the politico’s art, or else he realized that he didn’t need it. Indeed, he had a kind of reverse charisma.

Most charisma emanates outward. It’s an energy that comes from a person who wants to be liked, that draws you in. Yet you were drawn to Mandela not because of anything he put out, but because of what you brought to him, your own awareness of his history and his beliefs. You liked him already; he didn’t have to win you over. He spoke softly, thoughtfully, and if he’d been anybody other than Nelson Mandela, you might not have listened. However, because you knew he was Nelson Mandela, you hung on his every word.

Other politicians don’t trust themselves, or their listeners: they turn on the charm. I thought about this a few years later, when I met Fidel Castro and spent a week with him in Cuba. Castro was the opposite of Mandela, with an electrifying, actorish presence and a mesmerizing rhetorical style. His charisma was more powerful than any other I’ve experienced — and it needs to be, because he can’t afford to let you remember what a bad character he is, how many people have died and suffered because of him, how far he’s strayed from his ideals, or why he needs the AK-47 strapped to the back of the driver’s seat in his limo. When Castro walks into a room, you don’t think about any of that. Instantly he becomes every man’s beloved brother, father, grandfather, and every woman’s next lay. Castro’s charisma doesn’t seem forced or studied (unlike that of Bill Clinton, for example, who seems to have read a book on How to Win Friends at an early age and taken it a bit too much to heart): Castro’s charisma is a natural force, and it brings to mind Bertrand Russell’s observation that bad philosophy should be accorded the same negative respect we grant to tigers and lightning storms.

By the time we met, Mandela was a man of peace, with a Nobel Prize to prove it (shared with De Klerk), and he went on to preside over South Africa not as a dictator, not even as a philosopher king, but as a statesman. In his younger days he’d been accused and convicted of violence and terrorism; given the circumstances, those charges can’t be accepted at face value, though it’s true that plenty of his associates, including his ex-wife, Winnie, were tempted to use violent means to achieve their goals. Maybe if Mandela hadn’t been in prison all those years, he might have resorted to violence, too: he wouldn’t be the first revolutionary to do so. Even George Washington did it. But by now his gentleness and wisdom prevailed, and he spoke convincingly (and later acted accordingly) of his desire to make of South Africa a place where blacks and whites could live in harmony. Not for him the punitive, vengeful politics that others promoted, and unlike Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe (whom we also interviewed, on that same trip), the power of the presidency didn’t corrupt Mandela.

During the week before the interview, I’d already experienced the unnerving contrasts of South Africa. The white population lived as if in Southern California, with glittering shopping malls and gated homes. The black population, for the most part, lived in shantytowns, and there was no way to mistake these for anything other than Africa — especially when I attended, shortly after my arrival, a pro-Mandela rally in the form of a toy-toy, a kind of dancing march by thousands of supporters brandishing sticks. (Maybe guns, too: we were advised to wear bullet-proof vests, though we did without them, and in fact we encountered no violence at all.) I’d heard and read about the disparities, I’d seen movies and television reports, but I was unprepared, emotionally as well as intellectually, for what I found when we went into one of the villages and met the beautiful, friendly, thoroughly impoverished children there. I treasure a photo, taken by the great Louise Gubb, of our crew surrounded by these kids. They were too young to vote, of course, but they’d made their choice. Nelson Mandela was a hero to them, and he was bringing them hope.

It takes more than hope, or one man of peace, to change the world. Within a few years of that trip, our local “fixer,” a white man of insightful intelligence and love for the new South Africa, was murdered by a carjacker.

At the end of the interview, Mandela asked for Dan’s business card. A common enough exchange, except that Dan didn’t have any, and CBS management had refused to give me any of my own. (Indeed, Eric Ober, then-president of the News Division, threatened to fire me when I asked for cards.) I had to scribble out our office address and phone number on a piece of spiral-notebook paper, which Mandela accepted with amused graciousness.

Within a few more hours, we were on our way back to the United States. The direct flight seemed even longer because the food was so bad on the South African airliner: inert, greasy masses of ground beef, cheese and potato made one appreciate just how much Julia Child did for American cooking, because it was the sort of meal one might have expected to eat in the 1950s. But soon enough I was in Manhattan, where penthouses abut housing projects, where the disparities between black and white (and brown and…) seemed only slightly less pronounced than those I’d just seen in South Africa. How long before America produces a Mandela of its own? And will he be able to do any good?