A Mandela Moment (2)

Those who are honored to have met the late Mr. Nelson Mandela, the former president of South Africa, always seem to take special pride in their particular Mandela Moment, a memory that remains with them for a long time.

My first such Mandela Moment took place on 28 October 1990, a Sunday, when I had a chance to shake hands with the great man at a welcoming rally in Osaka, Japan just a few months after Mandela, then-deputy president of his party, the African National Congress (ANC), had been released from 27 years in South African prisons.

My second Mandela Moment a few months after that was just as memorable, if not more memorable, than the first one.

Some of us who had been active in the anti-apartheid movement in Japan were informed by Jerry Matsila, the South African head of the ANC based in Tokyo, that Mandela was scheduled to visit Japan again in May 1991. He had been invited by the Austria-based International Press Institute to be the IPI’s keynote speaker at the group’s annual international meeting, which was to be held that year in Kyoto, Japan. We were elated to hear the news; maybe we could organize another welcoming event for Mandela in Japan.

But it came with hitch: The Japanese Ministry of Justice was reportedly allowing Mandela to come into Japan on one condition — that he not make any public “political speeches” while he was in Japan. Any ANC fundraising events to be held in connection with Mandela’s Japan visit would be strictly off-limits.

Which was a strange condition, indeed. Mandela made headlines in whatever country he happened to visit, and his visits to foreign countries were always met with a warm reception and with big fundraising events. Why the cold shower from Japan this time?

We heard that Matsila, the Tokyo ANC representative, was enraged by the Japanese Ministry of Justice conditions on Mandela’s visit. Mandela had been invited by Japan’s government just a few months before in October 1990 as a VIP and given the royal treatment (though no monetary assistance for the ANC) while he was in Japan for a week. And now Japan was allowing Mandela to visit the country again, but essentially in secret and under the media’s and public’s radar? What was that?

Well, no matter. If Mandela couldn’t come to us, we would go to him. And if he was barred from being “political” in Japan, we citizens and residents of Japan certainly weren’t. We decided to give him a warm political welcome of our own when he arrived at the airport.

And so, during a weekday in mid-May 1991, seven months after I had met Mandela the first time, I had a chance to possibly meet him again. A Japanese friend of mine, Kyoko, who was not involved in the anti-apartheid movement but who shared an interest in South African culture and issues just the same, asked if she could come along too.

So there I was at Osaka (Itami) Airport with my trusty Minolta camera. My friend Kyoko brought along a bouquet of flowers that she wanted to hand over to Mandela personally, though I discouraged her from getting her hopes up too high. There was no guarantee that either one of us would even get close to Mandela.

But luck was with us. As it turned out, there were few or no members of the press there at the airport to report Mandela’s arrival that day; it seemed to be business as usual as people came and went through the airport terminal. The only visible sign, in fact, that a VIP was about to arrive was the big yellow banner reading NELSON MANDELA – WELCOME TO JAPAN that some of the Japanese anti-apartheid activists had made and were hanging over the second-floor balcony at the airport’s international arrivals section.

We waited and waited for what seemed like forever in the airport lobby, with people exiting the doors one after another.

Then the doors opened, and suddenly there was Mandela. He and his small entourage were on the other side of the waist-high railing and heading right toward us. He raised his fist in solidarity with the small crowd welcoming him. One thing you could always say about Mandela: The man knew how to make entrances and exits.

When he got within a few feet of us, I used Baba, the respectful South African (Zulu) word for “father” to get his attention. “Baba Mandela,” I called out to him. He looked over: “Yes,” he answered.

“Welcome back to Japan,” I said, with some pride at having been the first one to do the honors. “Thanks a million,” he replied.

I nudged my friend Kyoko, then I said to Mandela: “She has something she’d like to give you.” Kyoko handed her flowers to him, and he graciously thanked her and carried them on his way as he continued greeting others.

Undercover agents of the security police then escorted Mandela not through the front doors of the airport terminal, as we had expected, but out through a side door that led out into a parking lot. So all 25 or so of us made a mad dash out the front doors and around to the parking lot and watched from a respectful distance as Mandela waved in our direction.

He was just about to get into his specially appointed black car, when he did something unexpected: He turned away from his Japanese and South African handlers, and started walking toward us a couple yards away. I can still remember the looks of surprise and concern on the faces of Mandela’s handlers as he did so.

There was the 72-year-old Mandela, just within arm’s reach of us, larger than life, in his ordinary-looking greyish suit and brown/grey tie. I glanced at the Japanese activists standing around me and they were speechless, their mouths agape. But I just did what came naturally: I kept taking photos of him.

I forget now the exact words Mandela told us, but to the best of my memory it went something like this: Thank you for taking the time to come out here to welcome us. It means a lot. And thank you for raising your voices against apartheid in South Africa. Someday South Africa will be free, so keep on standing up and speaking out.

“OK?” he said, then, “Thank you”. And smiling, he turned and headed back to where his handlers were anxiously waiting for him.

The Japanese activists around me were stunned and couldn’t say a word. So, without even thinking, I made the first move. I raised my fist as Mandela was walking away, and began singing the first few lines of the famous anthem of the South African liberation struggle, “Nkosi Sikekel’ iAfrika” (God Bless Africa), a song I knew by heart and had always loved:

Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo....

(which translates roughly as:
God bless Africa
May her glory be lifted high
Hear our prayers,
God bless us, Your children....)

To my surprise — and great relief, since I must have looked like a fool singing solo — the other Japanese activists started joining in singing with me.

And we kept on singing it too, as Mandela got into his car and as the procession of cars edged toward us and moved out of the parking area. My last glimpse of Nelson Mandela in person was him inside the black car, smiling and raising his fist through the closed car window as he went past us. And then, he was gone and on his way.

That was in mid-May 1991. Three years later, almost to the day, Mandela became the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa — just as he had promised us the country would be one day.

When I heard the news that Mandela had passed away at age 95 on 5 December 2013, my mind turned to the two very memorable Mandela Moments I had had here in Osaka, Japan more than two decades before. And on the evening of his deeply moving state funeral ceremony in South Africa on 15 December, just like when I had first shaken hands with him at that massive rally in Osaka, I was deep into my thoughts and had trouble falling asleep that night.

So, the evening that Mandela was laid to rest in South Africa, I went out for a midnight walk alone in my neighborhood, down the hill and over to a small Japanese Shinto shrine that was nestled in the woods among some small farms, to pay my own respects. I brought along a food offering for the spirits, as is the custom.

And I thought about things as I walked along in the silent night. I thought about the long walk to freedom of Nelson Mandela and his people. I thought about all the suffering, all the countless South African lives destroyed by an evil system of segregation called apartheid, which had been propped up and supported by the major Western countries for nearly 50 years.

I thought about the African continent, the birthplace of humanity, and all the suffering there throughout the ages. And I thought about all the problems around the world today, and how we could use more Mandelas in the world — how we could be such persons ourselves, if we really wanted to be.

And at the Shinto shrine, there in the still and quiet of a chilly, late-autumn night, I prayed: for the spirit of this man, Nelson Mandela, to have a good journey; for the peace and prosperity of the South Africa he left behind; for all of Africa; and if the truth be known, for all of us in the world. We need it.

That is what my Mandela Moments, all two of them, meant to me. They will always be a part of me, for as long as there is breath and life left in me.

And who knows? Somewhere on that eternal walk that we all must make in our own time, somewhere in a time and space far away from here, maybe we will meet Nelson Mandela again. What a Mandela Moment that would be....

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