I met Nelson Mandela in the summer of 1991. Actually, it would be more accurate to say I froze in his presence when I had the chance to meet him.
I had traveled to South Africa to serve as a teaching assistant at the University of the Western Cape in between my junior and senior years at UNC-Chapel Hill. In early July, I found my way to Durban to attend the first national conference of the ANC since it had been unbanned by the ruling National Party. Allister Sparks, a South African journalist then working for the Washington Post, had agreed to let me tag along with him and witness history. If you can get yourself to Durban, he told me, Ill get you into the conference.
Sparks delivered, and I got into the conference with Washington Post media credentials. I would attend the sessions that were public, but when they went into executive session and the journalists wrote their dispatches, I would wander around outside the press building at the back of the assembly hall.
During one closed session, I stood talking with a South African woman, who had walked to the conference site with her baby. Suddenly, doors sprung open near us and out walked Mandela with his security detail. He respectfully greeted the woman, leaned down and spoke to the child, glanced my way and went on to his waiting car. Im sure he would have shaken my hand had I offered it or responded had I uttered a simple, Hello, Mr. Mandela. But I did neither. I couldnt. I was awed.
As the world watches South Africa say goodbye to Mandela and praise is heaped upon his legacy, it is easy to see this as another instance of an individual deified in death. But in 1991, Mandela was already an icon. It would be hard for Americans today to grasp the reverence in which he was held at that time in South Africa. Perhaps if Abraham Lincoln were to return and walk the streets. While I had read my South African history, including Mandelas outsized role in it, nothing could have helped me to understand what a larger-than-life figure he was.
It wasnt just that he was the leader of the ANC and bore the hopes for liberation upon on his shoulders.
It was that his presence was everywhere. It was in the political philosophy class I taught, where Mandelas critiques of the current system were recited like a text. It was at protests on campus or in Cape Town, which were filled with songs about him. It was in peoples homes and township shebeens I visited, where political discussions began and ended with him. It was even in the locker room of the school rugby team (which I played for), where we would sing songs about Mandela as we readied to take the field for a match.
From my American perspective in 1991, the expectations for Mandela and for what he would accomplish seemed impossible. And yet he proved himself equal to the task.
In the three years after I returned from that summer to UNC, Mandela was the indispensable figure leading the country through negotiations and into democratic elections, averting widespread internal violence and achieving a peaceful transfer of power. It still seems improbable.
Looking back, I recognize clues. One of them was at a packed rally I attended immediately following the ANC conference at Durbans Kings Park Stadium. I can remember my disappointment at how unemotional Mandela was in his speech. He painstakingly laid out the direction of the ANC and the steps they would take to transition power. In retrospect, I realize that this was not vindication speech or a campaign speech, this was a governing speech. He was not taking back a country, he was building a new one.
Framed in my office are the Declaration the ANC distributed at the conference, a ballot from the 1994 elections and a picture I took of children in the rural Transkei region of South Africa. In the center of the picture are two young boys with broad smiles and upraised fists. To me, these three items represent relentless hope and determination Mandelas legacy.
J.B. Buxton lives in Raleigh with his wife and three children.