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Remembering the regal and gracious Nelson Mandela

Longtime PBS NewsHour correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault reflects on the first time she interviewed Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95. In this 1990 file photo, Hunter-Gault is seen with Mandela shortly after he was released from prison.

No one could imagine what the world’s most famous prisoner would be like. But in February of 1990, when the African National Congress announced that Nelson Mandela would be available for interviews a mere five days after his release from prison after 27 years, dozens of us journalists from all over the world made our way to his tiny home in the sprawling, poor, black township of Soweto. Until his emergence from prison five days earlier, Mandela had not been seen publicly since he was sentenced to life for conducting an armed campaign to topple the ruling white minority regime. And this aggressive media was a new experience for him. Because I had been in close contact with members of the party since I first went to South Africa for The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in 1985, I was able to get one of only two half-hour interviews, but I also had to wait my turn. Still, when I got my first glimpse of him, I couldn’t restrain myself. Since there was no real security, I bounded up to him once he emerged from his house and introduced myself, saying I would be interviewing him later.

I was at once struck by his height — at least a head taller than me at five-feet-eight — and his regal, upright bearing, though on the latter I should not have been surprised given his royal pedigree. And there were no signs of his years as a prisoner, although photographers were not allowed to use flashes due to his eyes being weakened from the dust in the lime quarry he was made to work in as part of his prison duties. Nor was it evident that his lungs had also been affected by prison and that he had contracted tuberculosis. (It was a lung infection that sent him to the hospital June 8, 2013.) Still, Mandela was smartly dressed in suit and tie and showed no outward signs of the confined life he had been forced to live all those years.

Even though meeting the press was new to him, he showed no signs that he was uncomfortable. He smiled easily and responded warmly as I broke what little protocol there was and moved up to him as he headed for still another of the 10 minute interviews the other media had been granted. He was gracious, smiling warmly and waiting patiently as my producer Jacqui Farmer, snapped a picture with me standing behind him, tiptoeing in order to look over his shoulder.

He would greet me with that same warm smile in our encounters over the rest of his life, as I conducted more interviews with him than almost any other journalist. And as time went on, the Mandela I saw on that first day was the Mandela he remained: gracious and regal, the custodian of his lifelong vision of a rainbow nation.

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