When Mandela first met America

When Mandela first met America

Nelson Mandela never visited the United States before he entered that long quarter century in prison. In fact, he only made his first trip to America in June 1990, four months after leaving prison in triumph - and mounting expectation. But that June visit became a great success – it tapped into an enormous reservoir of good will towards the man himself, and in support of the larger anti-apartheid struggle and cause of liberation. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Americans eagerly embraced Mandela’s visit to their nation because – for them – it drew explicit lines of historical and emotional resonances between South Africa’s own struggles and the American civil rights revolution. Moreover, it spoke to the cross-fertilisation between the two nations that had so enriched both movements earlier. To note just one example of this, American civil rights struggle veterans flocked to the “Free South Africa Movement” as the logical extension of their own long struggle in demonstrations in front of the South African Embassy and at teach-ins, boycott and disinvestment efforts.

Reporting on that visit to the US, the New York Times, for example, in reporting on Mandela’s midtown Manhattan parade, quoted bystanders who had said things like, “ ‘I felt a blessing from God that I could be part of this,’ said Taraja Samuel, an administrator with the city’s Board of Education, who took her 15-year-old son Taiye to the City Hall ceremony. ‘I came of age in the 1960’s, but the regret of my life is I never met Dr. King or Malcolm. I told my son today to be in the presence of Nelson Mandela was an honour.’ ” But even before Mandela’s American visit, this writer had a brief ringside seat as Mandela began his own first embrace of America.

The same day Nelson Mandela was freed from his prison just happened to coincide with the day the American Ambassador to South Africa, William L Swing, had agreed to host a giant reception in honour of Rev Jesse Jackson and his entourage – then visiting Cape Town. Jackson just happened to be visiting South Africa and although Jackson’s scheduled time in Cape Town was not designed to coincide with Mandela’s release, it ended up doing just that. Jackson never got to the elaborate reception that had been prepared in his honour – right down to fresh oysters and crayfish. Instead, Jackson ended up at Mandela’s speech on that day in downtown Cape Town, in front of that great, celebrating crowd. In fact, it would have been virtually impossible for Jackson to break out of that human wave and make it to the reception, even if he had wanted to. The crowds were just too dense, too large, and far too ready to party to give way for any group of people to fight their way to a parked motorcade. As things turned out, most of the guests had the same problem.

But from that day forward, ambassadorial receptions in South Africa would never be the same. Suddenly there was a new sheriff in town, together with a whole new cast of deputies. They were people to be schmoozed with over cocktails and canapés, just like the old crowd who had been attending such gatherings before. Now, at those big, fancy receptions hosted for Washington visitors – the senators, congressmen, cabinet officials, and the private emissaries of the president, whomever – senior ANC figures were now being invited too and they began to attend American receptions just like everybody else. It was like a giant glacier had quickly broken up, changing a landscape that had previously been frozen in place.

At a typical event, for example, in one corner of a marquee tent set up for a garden party, one could find Thabo Mbeki, wearing one of his beloved tweed sport coats, smoking his pipe. Over in another corner, holding court might be Baleka Kgositsile (nee Mbete), resplendent in imaginative African fashions. And then, at the opening of a new play at the Market Theatre sponsored by the US Embassy, O R and Adelaide Tambo had come as the guests of honour – and they were in a room filled with names that had only recently become familiar to most newspaper readers. Still, there was one name still missing from all this new bustle and excitement.

Nelson Mandela never seemed to attend these events. Perhaps there was too much to study, perhaps there were simply too many things to sort out between the exiles or those now out of jail, and those who had risen to influence while staying home and organizing the struggle domestically.

Then, one day, the writer received a phone call directly from Ambassador Swing. That was odd. The man usually was a stickler for protocol during working hours; his secretary placed his calls – and once she had you on the line, the call was transferred to the ambassador. His message to me was simple, “Brooks, I need a favour.”

I remember thinking, “Of course, whatever you want. It’s my job. Right?” He went on, “I need some music to set the mood for a very small dinner party I’m hosting next week. Very intimate, no publicity, you can’t tell the musicians what is going to happen.” “Oh. Okay. No problem. What kind of music do you want?” “African jazz, of course, but performed by musicians who can also do the American jazz standards really well too. Will you take care of it for me?” A moment’s reflection made it quite clear what was being planned, so I called a pianist I knew well, a man whose musical gifts were obvious, and whose ability to keep quiet about things when that was needed, was just as well known to me.

I contacted my pianist friend and said, “You’re going to have to trust me on this, but I need you and really high quality sidemen to perform for me at a dinner – no, not at my house, actually, at a home just down the road from mine. Please meet me at my house, however, at 6 o’clock on the date I’ve just mentioned, and I’ll guide you there.” As ill luck would have it, their car broke down on the highway on their way from Johannesburg to Pretoria and they had to call a friend from the road to plead with him to drive them the rest of the way so they could make this rendezvous in time. Just. Some of us “sweated bullets” on that day as the clock moved towards the appointed hour and still there was no sign of my musicians.

Finally we entered the ambassador’s residence, got everyone set up quickly and I started to fade away into the library, just off to the side of the front entrance, when Nelson Mandela, all on his own, strode into that house, shook hands with everyone present (including the house staff) while I was quietly but energetically trying to get my musician trio to begin to play – but very softly – and stop staring at what was happening before them. There was a little bit of stage fright going on, it seemed. For most people, Mandela was still just a photograph, or perhaps a bit of television news footage, rather than the forceful politician and then the genial old statesman he was still to become later. Even those constitutional negotiations were still to come.

After dinner and conversation had begun, I found a way to disappear silently – the dinner was just for the two of them. Then, suddenly, about an hour and a half later, my home phone rang. It was a colleague who was also on duty at the ambassador’s residence – his task had been to shepherd a photographer – also sworn to total secrecy – to document this meeting for the future.

Quick! Hurry! Come back to Residence!” My first thought was that something terrible had just happened. What, I didn’t know for sure, but clearly something horrific had occurred. I raced over to the residence and as soon as I entered the building, my colleague said, “Go! Get in there and spend a few minutes with the man!” I greeted him casually and we exchanged the kinds of pleasantries one does in such circumstances (although I successfully managed to resist the urge to ask whether it felt different to be free than in jail).

What I did not get, however, was a photograph of my moment with him. And this was a man, after all, who had already become a hero who would have hundreds of thousands cheer him when he received his parade in New York City, who had made grown men virtually fist-fight for the chance to meet him at a reception or dinner in Washington or New York City when he visited in June of that year, and who finally achieved a chance at political and social immortality as South Africa’s first democratically elected president. But while I have no photograph of my moment with him – the photographer became caught up in the moment just as much as everybody else in the room – I retain a memory of meeting a gracious older man, already on the cusp of both national and international leadership.

A few months later, Nelson Mandela was on his American visit where he was received like a heroic military figure or one of the first astronauts, just back from space. And then, after all the adulation, it was back to those rancorous negotiations in a South Africa that felt, nearly every day, as if it would burst apart, never to be reassembled.

Mandela’s American Sojourn

Nelson Mandela’s actual visit to the United States a short time after that quiet dinner turned out to be a wild ride of over-packed scheduling, arranged by over-eager organizers, amidst the desires of many, many people desperate “to touch the hem of his garment” during his eleven-day sojourn in America – a trip that would have taxed the energies of a man half the age of the 71-year-old, recently released political prisoner. And at every stop, given the press of demands for a moment of his time and the limitations of the clock and calendar, he ended up not seeing people who felt he should have come their way or met with their body of supporters – and always there was a roistering gaggle of thousands of broadcast and print journalists eager to capture every moment.

The visit included stops in New York City, Boston, Miami, Atlanta, Oakland/Berkeley/San Francisco, Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, all before he jetted off to Ireland for a European Community meeting and in London to greet supporters in the UK – and have a go at Margaret Thatcher. In Washington, his visit also included an address before a joint session of the US Senate and House of Representatives, as well as a ticker-tape parade in New York City and a speech inside the cavernous reaches of Yankee Stadium. As the tour continued, there was growing concern for Mandela’s health, given his age and physical condition (although, in the end, he certainly surprised almost everyone with his ultimate energy and longevity). In fact, this 1990 America tour came in the midst of a larger six-week, 14-nation tour.

Photo: Nelson Mandela waves after he and U.S. President George Bush made remarks on the South Lawn of the White House June 25, 1990. The pair were scheduled to hold a working lunch. Reuters/Gary Cameron

Anti-Apartheid activist filmmaker Danny Schechter – the man behind the PBS documentary series, “South Africa Now” – was on hand to record the entire trip for posterity and he recalled with astonishment the frenetic nature of this trip. Writing in “Africa Report” a few months after the trip, Schechter had described the events. “It never happened the way we hoped it would. Mr Mandela, as he’s known formally, or ‘Madiba’ as black South Africans call him reverentially (by his clan affiliation), was kind of busy making history. His coast-to-coast schedule left little time for ancillary activities of the video kind: eight cities in 11 days sounded initially like some undertaking that a group of malicious Afrikaner hit-squadders had dreamed up as a way of getting a 71-year old man to self-destruct.”

All along the way there was a cascade of meals, coffees and teas and meet-and-greets with an army of supporters and would-be friends, the powerful and the meek – and not a few politicians eager to hitch their stars to Mandela’s increasingly incandescent sun. In particular, at Mandela’s speech to a joint congressional session in Washington, his appeal for full-bodied support of a multi-racial democratic society in South Africa was only the third time in history a private individual received this signal honour from the US Congress.

In many ways, while the trip was something of an organizational disaster, it was, simultaneously, an overwhelming public affairs triumph in the world’s most powerful and influential media market – turning the newly freed leader into a secular saint and political rock star, all rolled into one. It cemented Mandela’s name, face and reputation as the exemplar and voice of the desires of South Africa’s black majority, even as it carried forward Mandela’s message as a proponent of national reconciliation and non-racial democracy. And it set the stage for international acceptance of the political objectives of Mandela’s ANC as the appropriate lens for judging the progress of the subsequent negotiations of the eventual political settlement in South Africa. A key element of this trip was also to encourage continuation of US sanctions on South Africa – the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act passed in 1986 – until non-racial democracy had been secured.

During his Detroit stop, for example, he visited a Ford Motor plant in Dearborn as well as an evening rally at Tiger (baseball) Stadium in downtown Detroit. At the auto plant, Mandela received a union cap and jacket from the president of the United Auto Workers’ union (a particularly politically active and potent union) and rising to the moment, Mandela told union members, “Sisters and brothers, friends and comrades, the man who is speaking is not a stranger here. The man who is speaking is a member of the UAW. I am your flesh and blood.” Mandela was clearly getting the hang of American retail politics very quickly. In that sports stadium rally, he gained thunderous applause by quoting Motown music legend Marvin Gaye’s lyrics to his audience, “Brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying. Mother, mother there’s far too many of you crying.” Of course these city visits were not simply (anticipated) victory lap tours. The Detroit leg of the trip alone raised more than $1 million for Mandela’s party.

Photo: Nelson Mandela acknowledges the cheers of the United Nations members during speech to the U.N. Committee Against Apartheid, in the General Assembly Hall June 22, 1990. Mandela told the U.N. that right-wing terror groups were working to liquidate anti-apartheid leaders and prolong white domination of South Africa. Reuters/Mark Cardwell

The New York City portion of the trip – coming right at the beginning of Mandela’s own version of the “Magical Mystery Tour” – quickly became an object lesson of how to fill a foreign visitor’s trip full to overflowing – but most of the other stops eventually had the same situation. While the schedule originally called for a ticker-tape parade in Manhattan, an address to the UN General Assembly, a Yankee Stadium speech and a meeting with New York’s South African exile community, to placate so many others who felt left out of the original schedule, organizers added a motorcade through Harlem, time with black journalists, and a visit with students at a Brooklyn high school. And there was also a two-hour taping session with Ted Koppel of ABC-TV for the influential news program, Nightline. Koppel had famously broadcast a week’s worth of memorable episodes of this show from South Africa at the height of the struggle against Apartheid.

When Mandela was at the welcoming ceremony at New York’s City Hall, he had told his well-wishers, “’Apartheid is doomed. South Africa will be free. The struggle continues,” adding, “it is a source of tremendous joy and strength for us, my wife, our delegation, to be received with such a rousing welcome by the people of the city. Join us in the international actions we are taking. The only way we can walk together on this difficult road is for you to insure that sanctions are applied.”

Overall, New York City police estimated around 750,000 people had seen Mandela at one point or another during his time in the city; with some 50,000 in Queens at his arrival at Kennedy International Airport and along the route from the airport, at least 100,000 as he passed through Brooklyn, some 400,000 along the ticker-tape parade in downtown Manhattan and 200,000 in the ceremony at City Hall. Quite naturally, the 40-car Mandela motorcade led to predictable but gigantic traffic jams.

By the end of his New York visit, the organizers for the increasingly exhausted Mandela had had to cancel several of his scheduled events, including the meetings with black journalists and exiled South Africans, and even the small family meal at Gracie Mansion (the mayor’s official residence) that had replaced plans for a much larger, more formal dinner; but nothing seemed to put a damper on public adulation.

Veteran civil rights leader Roger Wilkins, the national coordinator for this trip, had told journalists, “it was clear he [Mandela] reached the limit where he should not be pushed. The man is tired.” And Zwelakhe Sisulu, Mandela’s press secretary and director of information of the African National Congress, said, Mandela was “quite tired after such a hectic day.” Wilkins had added, “The fact that we express our concerns doesn’t mean we have a sick man on our hands. It just means that we are being realistic about a very strenuous program for a 71-year-old man.”

In fact, the trip even began behind schedule as Mandela arrived two hours late from Canada. Rushing through the subsequent schedule then made Mandela visibly tired. Later on, however, a buoyant Wilkins had told the media, “I saw astounded people. I saw euphoric people. I saw a nearly 72-year-old man tired from a very emotional day. But when I was running by that security vehicle, I looked up, and the smile on his face was like a child at Christmas.”

In a variation on the theme of the public protection of distinguished guests similar to those now-ubiquitous “Pope-mobiles”, Mandela was encased in a vehicle dubbed the “Mandela-mobile.” It was complete with a bulletproof glass shelter with a peaked roof atop a police flatbed truck. To observers, with the spotlights on the four corners of the roof of the structure, it seemed to have an uncanny resemblance to a prison watchtower.

Despite the intentions of tour organizers, security arrangements melted away. Hundreds of exultant black teen-agers, for example, had surrounded the motorcade after it left Brooklyn’s Boys and Girls High School, running and cheering alongside the motorcade to the visible consternation of the security teams from the police and State Department.

Of course the trip had more than just the goal of creating an early version of Madiba Magic. There was also a down-to-earth political goal to keep the pressure of economic sanctions on South Africa so as to push a still larger social change agenda. ANC leaders continued to say FW de Klerk’s government was going to use his new, limited reforms as a rationale for the ending of those CAAA sanctions and this trip was meant to block such an effort.

President George HW Bush, an opponent of sanctions, told the media – wistfully it seemed to reporters at the time – that he was prevented from lifting sanctions until specific conditions were met, and the Bush Administration acknowledged that had not yet happened. As Bush said at the time, “I can’t lift the sanctions under existing U.S. law,” although he added he planned to discuss this with Mandela when they met in Washington. “I look forward to talking to Mr. Mandela about this. There are black leaders in South Africa that disagree with him on this question of sanctions. I’d like to find a way to show Mr. de Klerk that we, the United States, are grateful for this new approach that is having South Africa evolve to a much more open society and hopefully one day to one which is color blind in terms of participation in the political process.”

After his highly charged, emotional visit to the Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, Mandela had paused briefly for lunch at the Coast Guard Station at the Southern tip of Manhattan as well as to get the iconic photo opportunity with the Statue of Liberty in the background. Then it was back into the “Mandela-mobile” for the Manhattan parade. While it, too, began after its scheduled starting time, bystanders were clearly pleased, regardless. For example, Henrietta Wilson, an officer’s assistant at Chemical Bank, told reporters, “It was worth waiting for. That was history.”

Then, when he was in Boston, his schedule only had time for one day of the trip with daughters Zenani Mandela-Dlamini and Makaziwe Mandela, both of whom were studying there. But even there, that meeting had to be squeezed in between a lunch with members of the Kennedy family, a motorcade through Roxbury (a predominately black neighbourhood) and a six-hour public rally.

Inevitably, there were critics of the itinerary, especially since national organizers had left Philadelphia off the schedule. Aside from being one of America’s archetypal Revolutionary War cities (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were written and signed there), Philadelphia was one of the first US cities to divest from US companies that had held significant South African investment holdings on behalf of their employee pension systems. And it was also the hometown of Congressman Bill Gray, the legislative leader of the push that resulted in Congress’ passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.

By the end of the trip, despite the increasing exhaustion faced by this star attraction, Nelson Mandela had become a political superstar in America, hailed by many millions (well beyond the activists who had been focused like a laser beam on South Africa for years) who only a few months ago had been giving rather less than full attention to apartheid in South Africa. At the last leg of this journey, Mandela told a cheering crowd of nearly 60,000 people in the Oakland Coliseum stadium, “We are at a crucial historical juncture. We shall not turn back.” In this, the last public event of his American tour, Mandela told the crowd, “Despite my 71 years, at the end of this visit, I feel like a young man of 35. I feel like an old battery that has been recharged. And if I feel so young, it is the people of the United States of America that are responsible for this.”

While Mandela had not spoke to Native American concerns during the rest of the trip, at this point in the journey he said he had received messages from “the first American nation, the American Indians” and “I can assure you they have left me very disturbed,” Mandela said. “And if I had time I would visit their areas and get from them an authoritative description of the difficulties under which they live.” He promised such an oversight would not happen during his future visit to the United States in October.

In Oakland, Mandela had been warmly welcomed by the area’s Democratic Congressman, Ron Dellums, himself a long-time proponent of sanctions. Given Dellums’ prominence and the allied pressure from Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco over the years for disinvestment by the cities of stocks in American companies doing business in South Africa, and the region’s longshoremen had refused to unload South African goods, this stop, too, despite the long schedule already, was a must-do.

Then, finally, it was off to the airport, a final news conference there and the flight to Ireland to thank Dublin for its support in the European Community’s decision to maintain sanctions against South Africa, before going on to the UK.

Mandela’s American tour had become instant history – it turned into a televised pageant that captured audiences in New York, Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, and, then, the Bay Area. Local TV stations cut to live broadcasts of the Mandela events, including airport arrival ceremonies and concert-rallies – and newspapers issued souvenir sections on the trip. Even cynical TV anchors sometimes gave into the adulation – one television anchor in Detroit even called him “this dear man” on air during broadcasts.

The ANC tried hard to minimize Mandela’s surprise at his overwhelming reception. Zwelakhe Sisulu told US media “The political life of the U.S. is not so new, because, of course, he has been reading about it.” He added that, instead, it was the cultural experience that came across as new, and Mandela particularly enjoyed meeting all those sportsmen and musicians who joined in. “He had always thought of them as tall, huge people, and he remarked to Quincy Jones on how small they were in person. I think he was very surprised at the warmth of the American people; that was what was most striking. If anything, I think this was a humbling experience.”

In a lesson many other lesser political figures could emulate in future, despite the tumult of his eight-city tour schedule, Mandela managed to stay remarkably on message throughout, even though many of the people he met insisted the visitor endorse their own, individual political agendas on things like US education, drug problems and American poverty. While there was no public tally of the ultimate “profit” for the party from the trip, it was clearly a financial success. His only real off-message moment during the entire trip might have been when he spoke about Native Americans. Seen from the perspective of nearly a quarter of a century later, his rapturous reception in America back in 1990 now seems like it was just the harbinger of even larger things to come. DM

Main hoto: Nelson Mandela is all smiles as he is greeted by tens of thousands of people in Harlem, New York’s famous black district, during the second day of his U.S. tour. Mandela told reporters “I am feeling on top of the world.” on June 21, 1990. Reuters/McNimee

Read more:

  • The Mandela Visit; Mandela Gets an Emotional New York City Welcome at the New York Times;
  • Highlights of Mandela’s Visit at the Michigan State University website, draws on Detroit Public Television for actuality footage at the American Black Journal;
  • Nelson Mandela Address to the US Congress from the C-Span website Jun 26, 1990 (full speech);
  • Mandela Arrives for First US Visit, a report at the Daily News, Bowling Green, Kentucky);
  • Mandela Ends Tour of U.S. With Oakland Appearance at the New York Times;
  • The Impact of Nelson Mandela’s Tour of the United States at the Africa Portal, a link to the report from the SA Institute of International Affairs;
  • Mandela Regrets Offending Jews, Says He is Ready to Visit Israel at the Jewish Telegraph Agency;
  • Mandela Facing A Tough Trip Coming To America Is No Vacation For ANC Leader in;
  • A Hero’s Welcome Awaits Mandela at Each U.S. Stop at the Los Angeles Times;

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