December 12, 2013 5:54 pm

Mandela, American public servant

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The anti-apartheid leader answered a need in the US, just as he did in the land of his birth
Former South African President Nelson Mandela as he celebrates his 94th birthday with family in Qunu, South Africa on July 18 2012©AP

It was the most dramatic entrance I have ever seen. Nelson Mandela walked into the lobby of the US Department of State in Washington – and the place just changed.

The year was 1990. I was a young man, covering politics for the old United Press International wire service, and Mandela was making his first US visit after his release from prison only a few months before.

It was a strange way to see the South African anti-apartheid leader for the first time. There may be no location in the US that is more identified with what we call the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment than that building in Foggy Bottom. No less an authority than Joseph McCarthy, the late Wisconsin senator, once spoke of it as the natural domain of the “pompous diplomat in striped pants, with a phoney British accent”.

But Mandela was at home. A government office such as the state department seems Waspy until a Mandela shows up – and you find out how many African-Americans work there. The lobby, the stairs and the floor overlooking it suddenly filled up with jubilant black people – some in office attire, others wearing uniforms of various kinds – cheering passionately for Mandela and his wife of that time, Winnie.

I have never been in a revolution, but I got a sense that day of how such an event might feel. The president of the US was still George HW Bush. His secretary of state was James Baker. Their lieutenants held the key posts in the country’s diplomatic corps. But it stopped being their building as soon as the Mandelas walked inside.

The celebration, as I remember it, was intense. But there wasn’t the kind of hubbub that would greet a show-business personality or a star athlete. The people letting loose were clearly serious in their purpose – and loving. Mandela was welcomed as if he were a long-lost relative.

pfeatures, Banx

He was mourned this week by Americans in much the same way. The former South African president was never really a “foreign” leader here – not on the day that I saw him for the first and only time, nor in the years that followed. He answered a need in the US, just as he did in the land of his birth.

Mandela arrived in a US that was still haunted by the violence of its own racial history. It was hard to avoid the thought that we were fated to bury our African-American leaders before their time. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were both only 39 years old when they died. Medgar Evers, the Mississippi civil rights leader, was 37. Fred Hampton, the Illinois Black Panther, was 21.

Not everyone in this country minded, of course. There were people in our midst who shot these men, and more who hated them in life – and in death. But there were also Americans who felt their loss and who struggled to shake the feeling of foreboding that King himself confronted the night before his death, when he told his audience that he had gone to the mountain top and seen the Promised Land but “may not get there with you”.

Mandela endured and evolved. He had a happy ending – and that helped. In his eulogy for the South African leader in Johannesburg this week, the first African-American president of the US suggested that there never would have been an African-American president of the US without the example of Mandela.

I am enough of a cynic myself to smirk some when I hear politicians talk about their heroes, but I think the nature of Barack Obama’s praise for Mandela was revelatory. He said “something stirred” in him when he learnt about Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle more than 30 years ago as a student. But what was roused in the future president was not necessarily a desire to take sides – or to fight. Mr Obama didn’t grow a beard or head into a jungle.

Rather, Mandela’s resistance to racism encouraged the young Mr Obama – and put him on a path towards self-improvement. “It woke me up to my responsibilities to others and to myself, and it set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today,” said Mr Obama, who referred to Mandela as Madiba, his clan name. “And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be a better man.”

I realise that this means less to many of you than it did before Mr Obama’s deficiencies as a software engineer became so evident. But I would still argue that all this counts as progress in a country where so many tears have been shed and so much blood spilled over race.

To the extent that he contributed, Mandela was – among his many achievements – a great American.

gary.silverman@ft.com

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