A Mandela Moment (1)

It has been nothing less than soul-shaking and inspiring to follow the stories of so many people around the globe over the last week or so of how Mr. Nelson Mandela touched them in some way, whether up close or from a distance, whether with a smile or a hug or some kind of personal encouragement from him.

One of my favorite Mandela stories from South Africans themselves is this one that appeared in the New York Times: how, during an early-morning walk in his native village back in 1995, one year into his presidency, Mandela helped a farmer plow his field. It’s a warm story, yet so typical of the testaments that so many people from all walks of life are sharing about their own encounters with Mandela.

Like some folks who have actually had the high honor of meeting Mandela in person, I too have my own personal episodes to share, two of my own special Mandela Moments that will remain a part of me for as long as I live.

My first one came on a Sunday, 28 October 1990 in Osaka, Japan.

That was the day when a group of Japanese anti-apartheid volunteer activists, of which I was a part, organized a major two-hour “welcoming rally” for Mandela and a small contingent of members of Mandela’s political party, the African National Congress (ANC). The rally was held at an old sports stadium at a public park in downtown Osaka, and we managed to fill that stadium with 20,000 people. Mandela, as deputy president of the ANC, was on his first-ever trip to Japan following his release from South African prison some months before, and there was a sense of great anticipation in the air in Osaka that day.

The rally had already started and been underway for a while when the special guests from South Africa filed in a bit late, receiving cheers from the crowd when they were spotted. The guests were ushered over to a VIP tent near the stage and then, before I knew it, there was Nelson Mandela, wearing a gray suit and standing in front me a few feet away — the man the world had been waiting to see for more than 25 years.

Some of our Japanese organizing group members spontaneously lined up to welcome Mandela in front of the VIP tent, and I nudged my way into the small queue. One by one, we moved closer to him. Then it was my turn. Mandela looked down at me — he is quite tall — he kind of smiled, and I extended my hand to him.

I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe something like my grandfather the very last time I had seen him alive in the United States; his handshake had been a bit loose and weak due to his advancing age. But I was taken aback at how strong Mandela’s handshake was, considering he was 72 years old at the time. For an instant or two, I studied Mandela’s hand as I clasped it. I was surprised both by the largeness of his hand and the firmness of his grip.

Then, quickly my gaze went from Mandela’s hand, up his arm to his shoulder, and then up to his face. The feeling I had looking up at him was: Here is a king. It’s really true what people say — that Mandela always had something of a regal air about him, due no doubt to his childhood link to royal members of his Xhosa tribe. And here he was right in front of me, standing erect, looking straight ahead and shaking my hand, and I just had this feeling that I was meeting a king for the first time.

It was a very quick, slightly rushed encounter; no words were spoken between us. But in those few moments, I understood instinctively what people mean when they talk about the “Madiba magic” (Madiba being the name of the extended tribal clan to which Mandela belonged). It was something you could just feel in the man’s handshake and see in the dignified way he carried himself. He was African royalty in a very real sense.

I went home that Sunday afternoon after the big welcoming rally and stayed on an emotional high the rest of the day. My excitement over the historic events of that day kept me awake late into the night, and I had trouble falling asleep. When I finally did drift off into slumber, I remember it was with a big smile on my face.

Meeting Nelson Mandela that day was one of those moments that I somehow knew, even if I couldn’t really put it into words, would be life changing. And indeed, life never was the same after that first Mandela Moment of mine.

(to be continued)

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