Nelson Mandela Tribute

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In a tribute to Nelson Mandela, Tavis talks with activist-entertainer Harry Belafonte, Rep. Maxine Waters and talk show host Larry King, all of whose paths crossed with this extraordinary man, and also shares a personal memory of the then-ANC deputy president’s 1990 visit to Los Angeles.

Nelson Mandela dedicated his life to fighting for equality and helped transform the future of a nation. He moved the world when he became the first Black president in a part of the world engulfed by apartheid.

From a 27-year incarceration for his activities in South Africa's anti-apartheid movement to winning the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming president of the Republic of South Africa, spending his retirement years raising money to build schools and clinics in South Africa's rural areas and sharing his life and struggles in several books, Mandela proved that one man can make a difference. The world has lost a courageous and inspiring human being.

In a tribute to his life and legacy, we're joined by three people who have very personal remembrances of meeting the great man. Harry Belafonte—a tireless advocate for justice and equality in his own right—was a longtime friend and chaired the organization that introduced then-ANC Deputy President Mandela to the U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters first met Nelson Mandela in Los Angeles during his first visit to the United States. And, venerable talk show host Larry King had the privilege of interviewing President Mandela several times.


Tavis: Pleased to be joined tonight by Harry Belafonte, a long-time friend of President Mandela’s and a tireless advocate for justice and equality in his own right.

I recently caught up with him in New York City to talk about Mandela’s great contribution to the world.

Mr. Belafonte, I am envious and jealous of you for so many reasons, not the least of which is that handsome visage I’m looking at right now. But over the course of your life you have had a chance to befriend everybody.

Du Bois, I’m talking Martin Luther King Jr., I’m talking Paul Robeson, I’m talking Nelson Mandela. But amongst all the persons you’ve hung out with and been friends with and most importantly struggled with, what makes Mandela so uniquely different?

Harry Belafonte: I think it was the fact that of all the people that I have been privileged to serve, Nelson Mandela was the one that I least suspected that I’d ever come to meet personally, or to know.

I tried several times while he was incarcerated to be given the privilege of visiting him, but the apartheid system would not permit that. I started corresponding with Mr. Mandela while he was in prison. I had come to be aware of him through my mentor, the man whom I most admired and still do, Paul Robeson.

Paul Robeson was very close to King Luthuli, who was a leader against the apartheid system in the early days of its presence in South Africa, and Luthuli was the first Black man to ever receive the Nobel Prize.

Looking at South Africa from that prism, I then began to become more aware of what the African National Congress, the ANC, was doing and what its leadership was aspiring, to make decisions that would help us support the struggle the peoples of South Africa were experiencing in resisting apartheid.

Tavis: It’s one thing to work alongside Dr. King as you did so courageously, but with regard to Mandela, for 27 years, certainly, he was behind bars. What do you recall most principally about working alongside one of the stalwart leaders of this movement to end apartheid when he himself for most of that time was behind bars?

Belafonte: It was a very touching and a very exciting and rewarding experience. Often, I went to visit a man by the name of Oliver Tambo – who had been selected by the leadership of the ANC to lead the ANC during Mandela’s incarceration. So for all intents and purpose, Oliver Tambo was the head of the ANC, was the one that was given the power and the authority to give instructions to the rest of us who were in the service of that cause.

So that I often heard Mandela’s voice very clearly through the things that Oliver Tambo was doing. It became apparent that we were getting closer and closer to the time when Mandela would be, in all probability, freed.

Many of us looked on that with a great sense of hope that that would be the case. But I never thought I’d live long enough to see Mandela released from prison. When he was released, I was then instructed by the ANC and by Oliver Tambo to help them prepare for Madiba’s first visit to the United States.

In that capacity I was able to not only correspond with Winnie Mandela and with Nelson himself through mail, but to also set up the kind of environment that would be most rewarding for his visit to the United States.

He came here and I was charged with the responsibility of meeting all the demands that were made upon us for Madiba’s visit here.

Tavis: I remember that like it was yesterday, because that was the very first time, during that heightened moment of excitement, that I got a chance to meet you and to befriend you, during the time of Mandela’s first visit to this country.

Let me ask, though, for all the courage that you have seen in your life, a lot of it exhibited by yourself, but for all the courage you’ve seen exhibited by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Du Bois and Robeson and King, I think of two persons that you basically sponsored and brought to the attention of the American public – Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela out of Africa.

For all the courage that you’ve seen in your own lifetime, how do you properly contextualize, in your own words, the courage Mandela had to stay in prison during those 27 years when you know that had he struck a deal here or there he could have gotten out sooner?

How do you contextualize, how do you describe that kind of uncommon courage?

Belafonte: It’s not easy to contextualize that. It’s such a rare commodity. It’s such a divine existence that Nelson Mandela revealed. His power, his courage, was a great instruction to the rest of us who were seeking ways in which to relieve ourselves from oppression.

His commitment to what we were doing with our struggle here in the United States was a commitment (audio dropout) validation. He was very curious to know how we were going to wend our way through the systems of segregation and the kind of apartheid we were experiencing here in America.

How would we handle it, especially since we had chosen to take nonviolence as the main key to the success of our mission? He watched us very carefully and often spoke about the fact that watching how we (audio dropout) he was inspired.

Here was a man who had the most powerful military force, trained military force, on the entire continent of Africa. The ANC army was well-trained, well-equipped, well capable of creating a great deal of mayhem.

Yet with all that power, with all those skills at his disposal, Madiba always cautioned against looking at violence as any sort – as a solution, not any, but as a solution to the grievances that the people of South Africa were experiencing.

I think that Madiba, when he was released, one of the first thing he talked about was, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the idea of truth and reconciliation. That we would use a nonviolent environment in which to discuss not only the history of South Africa up until that moment, but what to do in the post-apartheid period.

How to govern the state, how to bring the country into a place of oneness and wholesomeness. It was an incredible moment in human history.

Tavis: We continue now our tribute to Nelson Mandela, talking with friends whose paths crossed with this extraordinary man many times. Joining me now, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who first met Mandela in Los Angeles during his first visit to the U.S., and Larry King, who I am jealous of (laughter) for so many reasons, not the least of which is that he had a chance to interview President Nelson Mandela a number of times.

I was just on CNN the other day and saw that your interview with him is rated by CNN viewers as one of the all-time greats.

Larry King: Oh, thank you. I also had the honor of spending time at his home. I was in Johannesburg to speak for a group of banks, and the banking people were very close to him.

So I got to go to his house and have tea. My brother was with me, and we had a wonderful three, four hours. Then that night I had dinner with De Klerk, the man who freed him.

Tavis: The same day.

King: Yeah. So I was feeling like this little Jewish kid from Brooklyn, like what am I doing here? Why am I in the midst of this? But it was an extraordinary day in my life.

Tavis: When you sit across from a guy like Nelson Mandela and look in his eyes, what do you see?

King: He was special. Certain people – I’m sure Maxine would agree –

Congresswoman Maxine Waters: Yeah.

King: – they change a room.

Tavis: Right.

King: They walk into a room and by their very presence change the room, and Mandela, I consider him the greatest figure of the 20th century. That’s a lot to say, because some pretty great figures in the 20th century; King and Churchill and Roosevelt and so many.

But Mandela, with what he went through, with what he overcame – and then the highest act I think of the Christian ethic is to forgive, and nobody, nobody could touch the forgiveness of Mandela, to then have guards, the guards who imprisoned him, attend his inaugural – what is there to say? (Laughter)

Tavis: Maxine Waters fought extremely hard to end apartheid here in California.

Waters: Yes, yes.

Tavis: Even before you got to Congress.

Waters: That’s right.

Tavis: In the California legislature –

Waters: That’s right.

Tavis: I’ve said many times the very first rally I ever went to, very first protest rally, was on Wilshire and La Cienega, at the embassy, when Maxine Waters was leading this fight to bring down apartheid in the California legislature.

Waters: That’s right.

Tavis: Remind the nation, the audience tonight, of what was happening in America then and how hard it was – we see Mandela as a hero now, but we were so on the late freight in this country on divesture.

Waters: That’s right, that’s right. We were late because don’t forget that our country and our public policy didn’t take us to the concerns of Africa, and they didn’t have a voice.

So the white South Africans were in charge (unintelligible) before De Klerk, they were the spokespersons that our country would listen to. So just as we watch our country not understand some of the indigenous leadership and the opposition leadership to dictatorships and other things over the years, this is true with South Africa.

It was only after the ANC became very bold, and as you know, they labeled them communists and terrorists and all of that. We got bold and we joined the ANC from here to say that no, this is the liberation movement. But it was hard. Racism prevailed here in the United States.

Tavis: Larry, I will never forget as long as I live the night – speaking of communism – the night that Nelson Mandela was being interviewed in the town hall by Ted Koppel, and I had never seen Koppel get the business.

I love Ted Koppel, but Mandela gave him the business that night, and told Koppel, “You do not tell me who my friends are.”

Waters: “My friends are.”

Tavis: You don’t tell us –

King: I never saw that.

Tavis: Oh, man, it was a moment.

King: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: (Unintelligible)

Waters: Well, it was – what happened was Nelson Mandela and the ANC had started to receive support from all over the world.

Tavis: Qadhafi and everybody else, yeah.

Waters: Everybody. Basically, what he was being chastised a bit because of Arafat –

King: (Unintelligible)

Waters: – had come out in support of getting rid of apartheid. In so many words, he was being told, “You can’t talk to Arafat,” and he says, “You don’t tell me who my friends are.”

Tavis: Who my friends are.

King: Wow.

Tavis: It was a moment in television history. At the time I wasn’t on TV, but (unintelligible).

King: (Unintelligible) incredible.

Waters: Yeah, that’s right.

Tavis: This is a broadcaster’s question – on the occasion that you got a chance to sit for a conversation with Mandela, aside from the fact that you got the interview, did you feel like those conversations measured up?

Sometimes you can get a big name; they don’t really give you anything and you walk away thinking, eh, it was okay.

King: Oh, no, he was 100 percent.

Tavis: Yeah.

King: He was just as you’d expect. You try not to be too – I try not to anticipate what somebody’s going to be like, but he more than magnified it. He was gentle but firm.

Waters: Yes.

King: He was far-reaching, forgiving and understanding. He had a gentleness and a warmth, but at the same time, if you could – you would know this – a strength.

To perceive strength and understanding and gentleness through strength at the same time. I never met anyone like him.

Waters: I was fascinated by him because he joined the ANC when he was like in his twenties, and he was educated, he was smart, but he was a warrior, and he really did provide the leadership to confronting the apartheid regime.

So what’s fascinating about him, knowing what he went through, and then serving 27 years in prison, coming out of Robben Island talking about forgivingness, it was more than I could take. (Laughter) I was reduced to blubbering (crosstalk).

King: De Klerk told me he called Mandela the night before he was released, and he said, “Mr. Mandela, we’re planning a wonderful thing in the legislature in Johannesburg. We’re going to fly you up from Cape Town and I will introduce you, and we’ll have a dinner in your honor and I’d like you to address the legislature.”

Mandela said to De Klerk, “No, I will walk out of the prison and walk among the people.” What surprised me the most about him, that forgiveness attitude – Jackie Robinson I use as an example.

Jackie, for two years, had to suck it up and be not what he was – the real Jackie Robinson was very angry. Died angry, supported Nixon, didn’t trust Kennedy, was bitter.

I remember him saying to me, “Don’t put me in my grave telling me things are going to be equal. I want things to be equal now. I want to know that my son will have an equal – I want a level playing field.” He was angry. Mandela was not angry. How do you explain that?

Waters: Oh, I can’t explain it, because like I said –

King: How could you not be angry?

Waters: – he was so awesome in his presence, it was something about him that made you feel as if you had to be a better person.

King: Yeah.

Waters: In his presence you wanted to be the best that you could be. The moments that I have spent working to bring down apartheid, long before I met Nelson Mandela, are moments that I’ll never forget.

But the moments after his release stunned me. I was at the inauguration, and I was sitting on the front row, right next to Ron Dellums, and walking past us was every leader in the world.

I’ve been around for a long time and I’m not usually very excited, but I was stunned. Over the inauguration, in the skies, the military flew the formations in honor of Nelson Mandela, like you said – the very people who had been responsible for his incarceration –

King: Yeah.

Waters: – and for the deaths and all of that. So that was a moment that I hold in my head all the time.

Tavis: Let me close by asking you both the same question. I’ll start with you first, Larry.

Whatever you think of Mandela, you’ve made it very clear you think he’s the greatest figure of the 20th century. How do we, as human beings, how do we go about living his legacy?

King: By accepting people as they one. By dealing with people who use the “N” word. By living a life of being fair and equal. I have never understood prejudice. As a child, I never – it never made sense to me to pre-judge.

I remember when I arrived in Miami to go to get a first job, and the first thing I saw was “colored” water fountain, and I drank out of it. So I guess the –

Waters: Ah.

Tavis: How’d the water taste out of the colored fountain? (Laughter)

King: It was cold, it was cold and it was delicious.

Tavis: Cold and delicious (unintelligible).

King: I got on a bus and sat in the back. So (unintelligible).

Tavis: How was that?

Waters: (Unintelligible)

King: Yeah, that was pretty good. It’s a better ride. It’s more comfortable.

Tavis: Go figure. (Laughter) Congresswoman, the last word. How do we live this legacy?

Waters: Well, we have to have courage. One of the things I decided a long time ago was I was going to try and do public policy despite the fact people say you can’t fight from the inside. I thought, I’m going to try and do both.

But Nelson Mandela gave me courage. I created the bill that would divest all of our mass pension funds from companies that were doing business in South Africa. That was significant, because we were the largest pension fund in the country; maybe in the world.

I’ll tell you this little story very quickly. After I had the bill introduced and passed and it was working and all of that, once Nelson was out and things were changing, I still would not support the idea that we should repeal the legislation that I had done, even though it was probably long past due.

One day I’m in my office, and I get a telephone call. Who’s on the other line? Nelson Mandela said, “Maxine, it’s time to let go.” (Laughter)

Tavis: Isn’t that amazing?

Waters: I said, “Oh, oh, oh, Mr. Mandela, yes, yes.” He said, “No, it’s time to repeal the legislation.” (Unintelligible)

Tavis: What’s amazing about that story –

Waters: Yes, yes.

Tavis: You know (unintelligible).

Waters: Yes.

Tavis: What’s amazing about that is that Mandela called you to tell you that.

Waters: That’s right.

Tavis: And this country, we did not officially take him off the terrorist list until 2008.

Waters: That’s right, absolutely.

Tavis: This is after the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s still on the U.S. terrorist list.

King: (Unintelligible) make you feel good too, when I went to his house and he says, “I never thought Larry King would be in my house.”

Waters: Is that what he said?

King: That’s pretty good to hear.

Tavis: Very gracious.

King: Whoa.

Waters: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. Thank you both.

King: Thank you.

Waters: You’re so welcome.

Tavis: Appreciate it.

Waters: Yes.

Tavis: With the passing of Nelson Mandela, the world has lost a towering force for moral leadership as well as a kind and inspiring human being. His courage and strength in the face of unrelenting violence and his capacity to forgive those who sought to destroy him and oppress an entire people have inspired all of us who have shared his lifetime and will continue to inspire generations, no doubt, for years to come.

Tonight I want to share with you a very personal memory I have of the man. I was a young assistant to L.A. Mayor Tom Bradley, and Nelson Mandela was coming to our city.

I remember the day like it was yesterday – for days prior I couldn’t sleep through the night, anxious with anticipation. Mandela was coming to Los Angeles, and I was plotting how I could position myself to actually meet him, to shake his hand, hug him, maybe even take a photo with him.

I was working overtime trying to devise a strategy that might find me, say, hiding in a closet in the mayor’s office until he arrived for a private meeting with my boss, Mayor Bradley, and a public rally to follow on the steps of city hall.

Mandela was the deputy president of the African National Congress and L.A. was one of the final stops on a grueling 12-day, eight-city U.S. tour – part of a planned six-week international tour following his release from prison after 27 years.

I was just a 25-year-old junior aide to Mayor Bradley back then. I realized as I thought of Mandela and what he had endured that he had been imprisoned for his beliefs longer than I’d been living at the time.

There was no way, really, hard as I tried, that I was going to outwit or avoid what I now know to be a pretty standard building sweep by the Secret Service prior to the arrival of dignitaries and heads of state, and so sure enough, before Nelson and Winnie Mandela arrived the Secret Service forced everybody out of the mayor’s suite – everyone except the mayor’s LAPD security team.

Now I could tell by the route Mandela was taking inside for the meeting and back out to the steps of city hall for that rally that there was no way I was going to get even close to Mr. Mandela.

So I decided to stand outside with the tens of thousands of other fellow citizens in downtown L.A. who’d come to cheer and celebrate the rarest of human beings.

I have always regarded Dr. King as the greatest American this country’s ever produced, but Dr. King was dead long before I was even out of diapers. Here comes now a freedom fighter who represents the closest thing to King’s courage that I may ever meet, but I was stuck outside, pouting.

Until someone yelled to me that the mayor was asking for me. The Secret Service lets me back inside city hall and I moved quickly through the hallways, now filled with Mandela’s entourage, to see what the mayor needed.

All the while, I am looking for a glimpse of Nelson and Winnie Mandela myself. The mayor whispers to me that of all the celebrities and personalities who had assembled on the lawn that day at city hall, Mandela wanted to personally greet Muhammad Ali and Sidney Poitier before he went outside to speak at the rally.

My job as a young aide? To go outside, to escort Ali and Poitier back into the mayor’s office. Oh, my God – my heartbeat accelerated so fast. I immediately ran outside and secured Ali and Poitier as I’d been told.

When I opened the security door to the long hallway that led to the mayor’s personal office and Mandela’s entourage saw Ali and Poitier walking toward them – well, I don’t even have the language to describe the chants, the dancing, the full-face smiles, the love, the joy, the sheer ecstasy in that hallway as we walked toward Nelson and Winnie Mandela, standing alongside Mayor Bradley.

It is true that life is not so much about the breath that we take but rather about those moments that take our breath away – those precious memories. I have relived this moment countless times since hearing of Mandela’s passing, and every time I think on it, I get joy unspeakable.

From that day I was able to start friendships with two iconic Americans – Ali and Poitier. My life and my work have been greatly enriched and influenced by their gifts and by their friendship.

As for Mandela, I didn’t get to sit for a conversation with him that day, but I did get a handshake, and I got my hug.

What could be more inspiring for a 25-year-old African American male wanting to make a meaningful contribution to society? That handshake and that hug had meant more to me than words could ever express.

As Mandela was advancing in age and dancing with mortality, we were asked to keep him in our prayers. Now that he’s gone, I will continue to do that. I will always give thanks for his uncommon courage and unwavering commitment to justice for all, service to others, and a love that liberates people.

I want to close here by saying that the choices he made and the life he lived remind us all that sooner or later we have to give our fears an expiration date and work unceasingly to create the kind of world that we want to inhabit.

Good night from Los Angeles, and as always, keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

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Last modified: December 6, 2013 at 7:46 pm