Breakfast with Mandela

December 6, 2014. Breakfast with Mandela.


I met Nelson Mandela four times. The first time was in Umtata, Transkei, then one of South Africa’s homelands on November of 1990. I stood in the doorway of a meeting room in the Holiday Inn during a meeting of about 40 members of the Transkei branch of the postal worker’s union. Mandela was with Chris Hani, head of the South African Communist Party and of the armed branch of the African National Congress (ANC), MK or Spear of the Nation.

Mandela was dressed in his usual three-piece suit and Chris Hani, later assassinated on the eve of the transfer of power, was dressed in military fatigues. They were mending fences with the local bureaucrats, many of whom feared the end of apartheid might mean the end of their favored status in the “homelands.” All politics is local Tip O’Neill said. At the end of the speeches he and Hani crossed right by me as they left the meeting room nodding as he left. Those who know South Africa can appreciate the irony of Mandela and Hani driving away from the hotel in cars with homeland license plates on them. The car assigned to Mandela was #1 and at the service of the Transkei’s then military dictator, General Bantu Holomisa.

I ran into Mandela twice in ANC headquarters in Johannesburg, where I was a regular visitor in 1990 and 1993 when doing my research on the transition in South Africa. The first time I met him was in their temporary headquarters on Sauer Street near the Star newspaper in August of 1990. His press spokesman at the time Pallo Jordan (later the Minister of Health in the post-apartheid government) introduced me to him. The second time I met him in Johannesburg was at the ANC headquarters, in the former Shell Oil Building, then called Shell House, and now named Albert Lithuli House, on Marshall street in Johannesburg and named after the 1950s leader of the ANC.

Surprisingly, security was very light around Mandela during those years. In Umtata I did not see any visible security presence and while there was a security check at ANC headquarters, it was a self-check. I introduced myself, told the guard who I was and passed through a metal detector. There was no one to vouch for me and I had free rein of the building one I passed through the gates. Despite all of the violence in the country at that time the ANC was an informal, some would say somewhat disorganized organization even as it was about to take political power.

I had breakfast with Mandela in Pittsburgh on December 7, 1991 the morning after he delivered the H.J. Heinz Co. Foundation’s Distinguished Lecture at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, organized by the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. Mandela spoke on the campaign to end Apartheid in South Africa. It was a major speech in which he spoke optimistically of the possibility of change.

There were six of us at breakfast, including Mandela, on the top floor of the Double Tree Hotel in Pittsburgh, the so-called Presidential suite. Security was much tighter there with several U.S. Secret Service agents in attendance. Two of his aides, Barbara Masekela and Lindiwe Mabuza assisted him and managed the table. Masakela was Mandela’s Chief of Staff at the time and Mabuza was the ANC representative in the U.S. (I had met and interviewed both before). I was with Sibusiso Nkomo and Renosi Mokate then teaching at Lincoln University and originally from South Africa. The breakfast had been organized by then Director Patrick FitzGerald of the Graduate School of Public and Development Management of the University of Witwatersrand who had worked for Barbara Masekela in exile.

Discussion began with the work that the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs was doing in South Africa. GSPIA had been asked to help develop a public policy school, the Graduate School of Public and Development Management at the University of the Witwatersrand under a series of grants from the Ford Foundation with the help of other funders. Maselela had been involved with the school, later launched by Mandela, and so he was well briefed. In his Heinz Lecture at the Soldiers and Sailors Building the night before he had publically thanked the University of Pittsburgh saying “Let us all, Americans and South Africans, act together to build a partnership for democracy, for peace and for prosperity. We are pleased that this University (the University of Pittsburgh) is already helping us to prepare for the future. If we all follow this example, as we can, we should have made an important contribution to the creation of the new world of which Lincoln spoke when he talked of a new birth of freedom.”

Mandela also noted my work with his fellow prisoner and colleague, Ahmed Kathrada on a research project focusing on his letters and biography and he also noted that Dennis Brutus, one of the organizers of the original sanctions campaign against sports ties, taught at Pitt. Mandela then went on to talk about his long admiration and friendship with Heinz’s then Chairman and CEO Anthony O’Reilly who had invited him to the lecture. He called him Tony, noting that he (Mandela) always rooted for O’Reilly, who was a famous English Rugby player in the 1950s, rooting against South Africa during the apartheid (pre-Invictus) days.

The breakfast was simple, hotel rolls and Danish baked goods, coffee and tea. The conversation was informal and light. Mandela appeared to enjoy talking about sports and the past. He was 73 at the time and his two aides took care of him and at one point commented on his limited ability to speak Afrikaans. Though not discussed, it was noticeable that he did not travel with his wife on that trip (he had done so earlier) and they legally separated four months later.

Mandela was quiet, but engaging and was very well briefed on who we were and the projects that we were working on. His courtesy was striking. When breakfast was over Mandela shook hands and backed out of the room so that his back was never turned to me- a sign of respect that is characteristic of many African cultures. It is this last gesture that remains with me more than anything else.

I first visited South Africa in 1975, and have visited it at least every two years since, with a two months stint in 1984 and 1988 and had a nine-month research Fulbright in 1990. From 1992-1994, I worked in South Africa on virtually a half time basis, under a contract with USAID that included the University of Pittsburgh. After 1994 I received funding to travel to South Africa under the Gore-Mbeki program, through the Ford Foundation and the USAID linkage grant co-managed with John Wiedman of the Pitt School of Education. The University of Pittsburgh has had a continual linkage with the University of the Witwatersrand since 1991 that was formally renewed two years ago.

Since 1990, a number of academics and professionals connected to Pitt have worked in South Africa including Dennis Brutus, John Weidman, John Yeager, Iris Marion Young, Robert Beauregard, Brenda Berrigan, Harvey White, and Louis A. Picard.