The man I’d like to have met

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 11, 2013

You know the question: If you could spend an hour with anyone, who would it be?
Until my parents died, my grandparents were my list. Now my parents are my only list.
But if I wanted to meet anyone else, it would be Nelson Mandela. I’ve met more than my fair share of movie stars and political leaders. Maybe spending three evenings having dinner with O.J. cured me (but that’s another story).
My ex-wife, Fiona, grew up in a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa, called Emmarentia. I visited several times when apartheid — legalized racism — was the law of the land. I did something my relatives never did: I toured Soweto, the South West Township (hence the name) of Johannesburg, where a million blacks live.
Emmarentia has magnificent homes (with servant quarters in the backyards), beautiful parks, modern shopping malls. Soweto has dirt streets and is packed with tens of thousands of houses leaning on each other made of cardboard and scrap metal, each one maybe 10 feet by 10 feet. Check out Google images.
Nelson Mandela began his political career as a nonviolent pacifist but apparently came to believe that the only way to end apartheid was to overthrow the government. In 1964, he was convicted as a violent communist agitator. Despite worldwide calls for clemency, he was sentenced to life imprisonment at age 46. Few thought he’d ever emerge alive.

Worldwide condemnation and economic pressure began to grow after an uprising in Soweto in 1976. South African politics was dominated by the National Party, which had promulgated apartheid for decades. In 1989, F.W. DeClerk became the leader of the National Party and was elected president. His first act was to announce that apartheid would be eliminated. The following year, he released Mandela from prison and called for open elections, knowing it would end his political career. For that, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, certainly not enough for that amount of courage.
In 1994, Mandela was elected president of South Africa. Fiona’s parents, who were apolitical and had always tacitly supported the status quo, voted for him. Like the rest of the world, they were surprised there was no violence, that Mandela harbored no hatred or desire for revenge and that his only response to the atrocities of apartheid was reconciliation.
My mother, Rose Post, wrote a story in the Salisbury Post about Mandela’s election that included a photo that melded my in-laws with Mandela’s image superimposed over the new South African flag. We sent my in-laws several dozen copies.
A few weeks after the election, my father-in-law was driving through his neighborhood when he saw President Mandela on a street corner, standing beside a police car, chatting with a group of white people. He stopped, shook hands and asked for an autograph. When Mandela said, “Of course,” my father-in-law walked unaccompanied 30 feet to his car, opened the trunk and grabbed a few copies of the Post for Mandela to autograph.

After autographing several copies, Mandela praised the photo and then walked up the street to meet and greet more white citizens. Imagine the president of the United States strolling around a suburban neighborhood with a couple of policemen. Imagine the Secret Service watching someone open the trunk of his car 30 feet from the president.
My in-laws were typical South African whites. They had black live-in maids and grounds keepers. They also had a two-foot thick, 12-foot high concrete wall surrounding their house, fortified with electricity, cameras and alarms. Because of violence, they had bars on their windows and a prison-like door in the hallway leading to their bedrooms. Every night, they locked themselves in.
Mandela wasn’t perfect in the eyes of the United States. He befriended Fidel Castro and Muammar Qaddafi because for years they called for his release from prison. Fiona and I entered the U.S. on the day that President Reagan told Bishop Desmond Tutu the U.S. would not support economic sanctions against South Africa. She was detained for three hours until we promised to get a fiancée visa.
Nelson Mandela knew South Africa had big problems. Like Moses, he knew that only future generations could heal the wounds of the past and that he would not live to see that future. But he led history on those first few steps.
Mandela’s prison guard grew to love him, secreted food to him and brought his grandchildren to visit. He danced with joy, enjoyed children as if he were their grandfather and treated everyone as if he was a close friend.
My desire to have met Nelson Mandela was not because he was a giant in history but because he exuded a humanity that made those around him, like my father-in-law, feel special, when he was the special one.
David Post lives in Salisbury.