Meeting Mandela: A Tribute

As thousands celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, I’m grateful that the snow has slowed down our hurried morning pace to allow me to take pause too, and honor a man who has been my hero, our hero.  It’s still hard to believe that Mandela has passed away. We knew the time would come, and he had been ill for a while.  Still, when it happens, you’re never quite prepared.  In Mandela’s case, the loss is so heavy because his life was so treasured; a pain shared by millions around the world.  No doubt he had an impact on each one of us – inciting our first instinct into activism; forging our conviction that forgiveness is the only way forward; buoying our belief that anything is possible.

mandela sign copy
Madela’s signature.
Photo courtesy of Salma Hasan Ali.

One of my life’s most cherished experiences is the time I spent in Cape Town, South Africa in February 1995 and the opportunity I had to meet Nelson Mandela. I was working with the Commission on Global Governance, a group of 28 prominent international leaders tasked with suggesting ways in which the global community could better manage its affairs.  The Commission’s ideas are published in a book called “Our Global Neighborhood”. We launched it at Davos in January 1995; our next stop was to present the book to Mandela, and discuss the ideas in the context of a new South Africa.

A colleague and I were entrusted with organizing a week-long visit for several members of the Commission, including Co-Chairs Ingvar Carlsson, then Prime Minister of Sweden and Sir Shridath Ramphal, the former Secretary General of the Commonwealth.  Sweden had been one of the most active countries in the struggle against apartheid; this was the Prime Minister’s first bi-lateral visit with President Mandela. As Commonwealth Secretary General, Ramphal had spent years in the struggle to end apartheid.  The stakes were high, I had never felt more nervous, or more exhilarated; I was 29 and felt completely out of my league.

From left to right: Ingvar Carlsson, Nelson Mandela, Sir Shridath Ramphal, and Thabo Mbeki. Photo courtesy of Salma Hasan Ali.
From left to right: Ingvar Carlsson, Nelson Mandela, Sir Shridath Ramphal, and Thabo Mbeki.
Photo courtesy of Salma Hasan Ali.

It was an incredibly exciting time to be in South Africa.  Mandela had just become President. The energy was palpable, as history was being rewritten, literally – portraits of the old guard, street signs of former heroes were being taken down, replaced with new names, new hopes.  I had read Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” to try and familiarize myself with the country’s history and struggle; but little prepares you for the feeling you get when you’re actually there, knowing that in some way you’re part of a seismic historic moment.

We had the chance to visit townships, Gugulethu, Manenberg and Khayelitsha.   Thousands living in tiny square shacks with corrugated iron roofs, no running water, no electricity, no proper sanitation, riddled with gang violence, crime, unemployment, poverty.  “Concrete curtains” had been built to wall off the deprivation from visitors. From Gugulethu I think I could see the vineyards of Stellenbosch in the distance.  The conditions were heart wrenching, but it is the individual stories of spunk and passion that I still remember.  I sat with a gentleman named George in his shack as he talked about the value of education with such passion and eloquence, determined to send his children to school. He showed me the peach tree and apple tree he had planted on his few meters of land.  His symbol of hope.  His words still echo, “Education is what sets you free.”  There was Ella Parker, 84 years old, who lived in the Nyanga old age home.  She was feisty and talkative.  “I love to jive,” she smiled, a twinkle in her eye.  When I turned back to wave good bye, yes, she was dancing. There were dozens of beautiful children we met in orphanages, schools, and maternity centers.  In one school as we entered, the children in black and white uniforms stood up, raised their fists and sang “Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika” (God bless Africa), the South African national anthem. I still get goose bumps.

I had organized a press conference with Nelson Mandela and Commission Co-Chairs Ingvar Carlsson and Sir Shridath Ramphal.   It was exhilarating to be in the same room as Mandela, to hear his reassuring voice, to experience his gentle smile.  After the conference, he exited into the hallway; I wanted to go up to him and say something.  But what do you say to your hero? I hesitated, not wanting to disturb him.  But I knew I would just have that moment. I approached him. He was wearing dark glasses; his eyes damaged by years of cutting limestone at Robben Island.  “It’s such an honor to meet you,” I said.  He smiled, “it’s an honor to meet you.”   For that brief time, I know he was looking straight at me even through his glasses, that his attention was focused despite the clamor around him. I knew I would think that moment a dream.  I pulled out of my purse the first thing I could find, a business card; he signed his name. It hangs on my wall. My gentle reminder to be patient, to persevere, to carry on.

George & his peach tree. Photo courtesy of Salma Hasan Ali.
George & his peach tree.
Photo courtesy of Salma Hasan Ali.

In his eulogy to Nelson Mandela this morning, Obama evoked the South African word “Ubuntu”.  He said that this expression captures Mandela’s greatest gift, “a recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity, and that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others and caring for those around us.”   I think MoverMoms carries the spirit of Ubuntu in the projects we do, the people we meet.    A few weeks ago, at our ‘Donuts and Discussion’ session at a men’s shelter in Silver Spring, Rebecca and I met a gentleman from Ethiopia who had arrived at the shelter two days earlier. As we engaged him in conversation, his story unfolded. He had been Mayor of a town of a million people in Ethiopia and had worked for CARE International, when he won the ‘lottery’ to get a visa to come to the US seven years ago. Here he worked several jobs to support himself and send money to his wife and six daughters, who he hadn’t managed to bring to this country. His last job was as a security officer at the Howard University Divinity School.   During his time off, he used the library system to compile 1,500 inspiring quotes.  He had them translated into Amharic and published into a book; he wants to use it to motivate young Ethiopians in this country and his own.  Rebecca and I were beyond humbled to hear his story of tenacity, will, resilience.  And by the hope that we may have made a small difference in his life.  Ubuntu.



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    Salma Hasan Ali

    Salma Hasan Ali is a writer, storyteller and non-profit leader. She is also the Contributing Editor of The Islamic Monthly.

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