Washington Week

Friday Nights on PBS

Gwen's Take: Meeting Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela visited New York during his U.S. tour in 1990 [Photo: CNN].

Nelson Mandela visited New York during his U.S. tour in 1990 [Photo: CNN].

I can't say I actually met Nelson Mandela. I shook his hand once; asked him a question at a news conference. But, unlike the thousands of reporters, celebrities and politicians now weighing in with tales of personal remembrances, Mandela was a distant icon who nevertheless deeply influenced me.

In his earliest years, he was an angry man. He had to be. It's easy to forget how impossibly high the walls of apartheid were. We celebrate the nonviolent creed of Martin Luther King Jr., as we should. But by the time King rose to prominence, many less celebrated activists had already fought some of the necessary preliminary battles.

For Mandela, violence was not a lazy option, but a necessary catalyst.

He was not warm and fuzzy, but a clear-eyed politician. I smiled as I watched him snap at Charlayne Hunter-Gault during an interview that was part of her excellent NewsHour obituary the night he died. She had mildly suggested that he might not be able to achieve all he wanted. He wasn't having that.

In the one reporter's encounter I had with him, in which I asked a star-struck question at a news conference with Hillary Clinton during a 1996 South Africa visit, he dismissed my question brusquely because it was redundant and ill-phrased. And he was right. "Next!" he barked.

I use that story today as a useful lesson of when it's OK to ask a dumb question. I still don't regret the exchange. This was Nelson Mandela!

Nelson Mandela statue
The Nelson Mandela statue outside the South African embassy in Washington D.C. [Photo: CNN].

The Nelson Mandela statue outside the South African embassy in Washington D.C. [Photo: CNN].

But what I appreciate most about the life of Nelson Mandela was how it gave the rest of the world a path into the story of upheaval, reconciliation and forgiveness that defined his post-prison experience. It gave the story a necessary face.

Without the smiling, dancing, sometimes stern Mandela leading the way, it would have been impossible for many to understand why the story of unsmiling, burdened, crushed black Africans mattered to them. In journalism, we call this a hook--a way into the story. Mandela knew that. And he was a shrewd enough politician to do whatever it took to snatch at the fleeting emotions and attentions of the rest of the world.

So it was that in the United States, activists campaigning for Mandela's release arrested outside the South African embassy made civil disobedience fashionable again. And so it was that self-involved college students were able to rouse themselves to campaign against college investments in South African currency.

But here's the thing that informs my thinking about Nelson Mandela today. He understood when it was best to paint in shades of black and white, and when it was more useful to opt for shades of gray.

Because life is told in grays, we saw South Africa's extraordinary Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where accusers faced the accused, and punishment occurred in real time. We saw western businesses forced to flee South Africa because of activist pressure, then return to reinvest and return the country to prosperity.

We saw a beacon of what is possible. If Mandela could forgive 27 years of unjust imprisonment (in which the United States, it turns out, was complicit), what grudge is it worth it for the rest of us to hold?

So, yes, I met Mandela, in all the ways that are important. And the lessons learned do not end at his death.