In large measure, the masses of people in South Africa have switched from a spirit of sadness over the death of Nelson Mandela to one of elation and celebration over his life's accomplishments, according to the American ambassador to that country.
“The mood is actually jubilant in many corners here,” said Patrick Gaspard, in an interview with BET.com from South Africa. “For the first day after the news broke of Madiba’s transition, there was a somber mood in the streets."
“But now that people have had an opportunity to absorb that and reflect on it, they are celebrating his accomplishments and celebrating how far they have come,” he added. “I’ve been out in the streets in Soweto and people have been exuberant. They have been dancing and chanting his name. It’s clear there is a spirit here that’s going to carry people forward. It’s phenomenal.”
The ambassador spoke about the personal importance that Mandela held for President Obama, who left Washington Monday morning to attend memorial services in South Africa.
“It’s clear to anybody that President Obama has deep affinity for Nelson Mandela,” Gaspard said. “He talked about the ways he came of age, politically, when he stepped forward in the anti-apartheid movement. This has great personal resonance for President Obama.”
Beyond that, Gaspard said, there is a deep and abiding relationship between the United States and the people of South Africa.
“Just this past year, we celebrated the 10th anniversary of our partnership on HIV and AIDS, which has really helped to turn around that terrible scourge that was plaguing this country and the sub-Saharan African region,” he said.
He added that there are more than 600 American companies operating in South Africa “that are investing in the future, that are growing jobs here, that are training the next generation of South African leaders.” He added: “It’s clear there is a sense that the 21st century can really be an African century and we as Americans need to appreciate that our success is inextricably linked to their success.”
Gaspard, who was appointed as ambassador to Pretoria earlier this year after serving as executive director of the Democratic National Committee, spoke about the impression Mandela made on him in the several times they met over the years.
“I had the honor of meeting Madiba on several different occasions,” said Gaspard, who first encountered the South African leader in the early 1990s. At that time, Mandela traveled to New York City when the ambassador was a young staffer working for then-Mayor David N. Dinkins.
“And each time, his humility really came through, his accessibility came through,” Gaspard said. “Despite the fact that he was a mountain of a figure, he always made you feel that you were the special one. He was a remarkable figure.”
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(Photo: Tshepo Kekana/Sunday World/Gallo Images/Getty Images)