Commentary: Encountering Mandela, an Unforgettable Experience

The then-newly democratically elected president of South Africa came to New York nearly 20 years ago.

Posted: 12/05/2013 06:59 PM EST

It was in the fall of 1994, nearly 20 years ago, that I had the opportunity to encounter Nelson Mandela, who traveled to New York City for the first time as president of a South Africa where a new era had finally and decisively dawned.

It was a reception at Gracie Mansion in the days when Rudolph W. Giuliani was mayor and there were many of the most notable citizens of the city there, including Giuliani’s immediate predecessor, David N. Dinkins. At the time, I was a political reporter with The New York Times and was part of a group of journalists who attended the reception at the mayor’s official residence.

Our moment together was extremely brief, yet electric. The most striking impression of him was how completely charming and humble he appeared. There was a gentleness about him that was difficult to overlook. He was always measured, mild and pointed. He seemed clearly a man of discipline and one who seemed utterly unpretentious. He made clear that he was a fighter against people being oppressed, no matter the race of the oppressor.

It was early in his presidency, a time when it was still largely unknown what kind of national leader Mandela would ultimately be. He had already attained a stature as an iconic world figure, a man who spent decades in jail for his role in protesting South Africa’s punishing system of Apartheid and white dominance over the South African Black majority. His ascent from freedom fighting prisoner to his country’s first democratically elected president was a story that was no less than biblical in its sheer dramatic arc.

What we knew then with great clarity was that this was one of the extraordinary figures in modern history. We already knew that he demonstrated to the world the strong principle of loyalty – he wouldn’t join the calls of some world leaders to condemn other heads of state considered too militant. Those who supported the struggle for South African freedom and democracy were rewarded with his faithfulness, irrespective of who didn’t appreciate it.

Still, it was unclear on that October evening precisely what kind of leader Nelson Mandela would ultimately be. We didn’t know then that he would become a symbol of what the principle of forgiveness looks like in terms of governing, a leader bent on reconciliation rather than revenge. He was deeply committed to the very difficult concept of non-violent political change. He would go on champion the concept of truth and reconciliation. It couldn’t have been known then how he would become a worldwide emblem of uncompromising principle. That was yet to come.

But what we knew about him then, just months after he was sworn in as president, was that this was one of the greatest figures to come upon the world stage and that his legacy would touch people in his country of all races and people all over the world.

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(Photo: Gareth Davies/Getty Images)

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