Meeting Madiba — An Unlikely Encounter with Nelson Mandela | Sojourners

Meeting Madiba — An Unlikely Encounter with Nelson Mandela

South African stamp of Nelson Mandela. Photo courtesy Neftali/
South African stamp of Nelson Mandela. Photo courtesy Neftali/

“South Africa’s transition to democracy was one of the remarkable events of the second half of the 20thCentury – and it produced one of our era’s most remarkable figures.  Nelson Mandela.  But what comes next?  When the magic is no longer here will the dream live on or will it become a nightmare? … South Africa will be a focused microcosm of the international tensions between rich and poor”. 

From “When Mandela Goes” — Lester Venter, 1997

Mr. Venter’s question is a constant thought during these declining days of Nelson Mandela’s life, especially today — his 95th birthday.  I pray daily for my South African daughter Eliza, husband Jonathan, and their four sons Noah, Aidan, Luke, and Sam, along with the many dear South African friends gathered over the past 30 years.   Will they live the on-going dream or in an emerging nightmare? 

In 1994, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, I had the honor of meeting President Nelson Mandela in a most unexpected way — just two months after his April inauguration as the first democratically-elected President of South Africa. (Jim Wallis has written movingly about experiencing this inauguration in his new book, On God’s Side.)

An enthusiastic crowd of several hundred gathered on the White House South Lawn the day President Mandela was received by President and Mrs. Clinton. While lingering after the formalities, hoping for an opportunity to get near enough for a photo or even a handshake, my mission was interrupted by the White House Religious Liaison. She requested a prompt retreat into the White House to draft a memo for my former employer, Senator Hatfield.  He was arriving momentarily to brief Bill Clinton on details of his (and others’) efforts on behalf of South Africa. President Mandela had also expressed interest in Hatfield’s anti-apartheid efforts in partnership with Desmond Tutu and other religious leaders. 

Senator Hatfield also, as a World Vision US board member, had been urging President Clinton to press for a formal end to hostilities in Vietnam. As such, the next day, it was my good fortune to return to the White House with a delegation to encourage President Clinton to seek diplomatic normalization with Vietnam. When we arrived we were surprised to be sent to the East Room rather than the Oval Office — an unusual location for a meeting with five people. But when we arrived we found 60 or more African-American grade school children and about 50 staff people and party donors.

The puzzle was soon solved when the Marine Guard standard bearers arrived with two flags — the Stars and Stripes, and the newly unified South African banner. The two presidents entered the room to the cheers from all, especially the delirious children. Mr. Mandela turned to Mr. Clinton and said, “Mr. President, I think these children would like to greet me, would that be proper?” 

It soon became clear that the presidents were to tape a radio broadcast declaring their joint solidarity.  The greetings and photos were postponed until after the formalities.

The broadcast was forgettable, but the after-glow will never be forgotten. It gave a glimpse of the spirit of what southern Africans call Ubuntu —a humanism rooted in caring for people no matter the differences. As in, ”I exist, because you do”.  

The two presidents together moved the table back. President Mandela then sat on the step of the riser and patiently greeted and hugged each child posing with them for photographs.  When the room was nearly empty, President Clinton beckoned those of us remaining to the front of the room as the children were leaving with their teachers.  We also received hugs and photos, while expressing great appreciation to Mr. Mandela.  I asked him if he would please carry greetings to a friend on his staff. To my surprise, he generously offered, “If you will give me one of your cards I would be happy to pass it along with your warm regards.” 

The stories of his care are legion: whether for school children, presidents, gardeners, staff persons, ex-wives, prison wardens, or people with whom he had passing encounters, such as me.  What I am missing most now in the very twilight of his life are his public presence has diminished and statements have ceased.  Mandela has had an immense capacity to speak on behalf of others who are suffering under apartheid-like oppression. Often this led him to address the widening gap between the rich and poor. His own suffering resulted not in vengeful bitterness but rather a deeper compassion and sensitivity to inequalities and misuse of power.

I have been most touched by his care for people in the Holy Land.  On Palestinian Solidarity Day in 1997, he said:

"The temptation in our situation is to speak in muffled tones about an issue such as the right of the people of Palestine to a state of their own. We can easily be enticed to read reconciliation and fairness as meaning parity between justice and injustice. Having achieved our own freedom, we can fall into the trap of washing our hands of difficulties that others face. Yet we would be less than human if we did so. It behooves all South Africans, themselves erstwhile beneficiaries of generous international support, to stand up and be counted among those contributing actively to the cause of freedom and justice.”

We join with Archbishop Tutu in thanking the Lord for this faithful brother in Christ and praying for Madiba’s “dignity to be honored” as his large and often conflicted family and nation struggle to maintain proper respect for his majestic legacy.

Richard Cohen said it best in a recent Washington Post opinion editorial

“He evened no scores, waged no vendettas, never made himself the cause [that] casts a shadow across the inner lives of all people … He remains the standard by which we must judge ourselves. He is not merely a big man. He is bigger than any man”. 

We are confident that “the dream will live on”.

The Getmans spend three months each year in South Africa with family continuing to work for reconciliation and justice partnering with the Kairos movement and the Anglican Church of the Southern Province.