The Day I Saw Nelson Mandela

His Excellency Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

Nelson Mandela died today. He was 95.

Wikipedia recounts the high points of his life thus:

“Nelson Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the first black South African to hold the office, and the first elected in a fully representative, multiracial election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalised racism, poverty and inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation.”

Of the lowlights, Wikipedia writes,

Although initially committed to non-violent protest, in association with the South African Communist Party he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, leading a bombing campaign against government targets. In 1962 he was arrested, convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial. Mandela served 27 years in prison. An international campaign lobbied for his release, which was granted in 1990 amid escalating civil strife.

In 1990 as Mandela was released a global frenzy erupted over his emergence back into public life. Considered a humanitarian, a statesman and a very symbol of dignity under apartheid and beyond, he embarked on a speaking tour. Just a few years later, he earned the Nobel Peace Prize (1993).

Very soon after his release from the South African prison, in 1990 he came to Boston Massachusetts. It was one of his first stops. My husband and I were living in Maine. My sister was attending college in Boston at the time and had an apartment. We made arrangements to stop at her place and then go to the Mandela talk together, with a group of her friends.

Little did we know the throngs that had also made plans to attend. A quarter of a million of them, in fact.

We missed my sister in all the hubbub, so my husband and I headed out to the esplanade, which is a long park alongside the Charles River with a clamshell at the top of it.

We tried walking over to the Park, but he crowds were thronging in a way that felt too dangerous to us. People were elbow to elbow and still piling in. We knew we’d never find my sister, and neither of us felt comfortable in the crowd. So we turned around and went the other way. We potted around in Boston city for a while, amazed at the ghost-town like quality of the place. Storrow Drive, a major thoroughfare, was empty. We walked up it, the wrong way, just to say we did. Whole blocks were deserted. Like tumbleweeds up a forgotten mining town, litter drifted down the streets that not one car or one foot moved on.

We finally made our way back to the car and decided just to head back to Maine. My husband asked me if I was sorry that I had not gotten to hear him speak. I said no, I could catch up with the news, or read a transcript later, but the crowds were too excessive for me.

He cranked up the car and down one of the deserted streets we moseyed, stopping slowly at each block’s stop sign. Up ahead, I saw a clutch of very well-dressed men walking briskly on the sidewalk. It seemed that a bunch of them were circled around another man. I said to my husband as we slowed for another stop sign, “Look, something unusual about those men.”

We drifted to a stop and looked right. The men stopped walking too, as they waited for us to pass and they could cross the street. The men were about ten feet from us, and all was whisper quiet, as if the entire city had been in an apocalypse and we were the only ones left. In the middle of the circle of walking men, was Nelson Mandela.

Me and my husband, him and five men. That’s it. No throng of 250,000 people, no reverberating sound system, just a quiet Sunday walk. He was so close I saw his polka dotted tie and even his tie clip. His hands were gnarled and popped with veins. But what struck me was his smile. I said “Hello Mr Mandela” and he nodded his head and smiled a very bright smile that seemed to emanate from his depths and flow outward. He nodded and then the men hustled him on.

The scene was surely only a few seconds but it seemed longer even at the time. We read later that he liked to walk, having been imprisoned for many years, and despite the security risk, he insisted on a daily constitutional.

It truly seemed like a slow motion moment, one of those otherworldly things that happen to other people, but never to you.

But it did.

The moment doesn’t mean a lot, he was just a man after all. But he endured every indignity, was the object of violence, was apart from his family for years, and yet he still smiled a smile of joy. I remember Nelson Mandela, not of his peace prize or stirring speech or world-changing efforts on behalf of all races. I just remember a man who persevered, walked along the street of Boston, and smiled.

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