I have always felt a close connection to Nelson Mandela, his aspirations, ideals, and principles. I vividly recall his imprisonment in the 1960’s and the shocked reaction of South Africans, black and white, when I first visited South Africa in 1977 and brought his writings with me. All of his work was banned and the very mention of his name was prohibited. When I arrived in Cape Town, I vividly recall looking across the bay at Robben Island, where he was imprisoned and discussing him with local civil rights proponents. But the closest I came to him then was a meeting with Winnie Mandela in the “wild west” rural town in the Orange Free State, where she was placed by the government.
I had the privilege of attending the Mandela inauguration in May 1994 with other members of the Clinton administration. But I first met President Mandela before his inauguration due to the connection developed between Stanford, myself, and Cyril Ramaphosa, who was at the time a trade union leader in South Africa and is now the deputy president of the African National Congress. Ramaphosa visited Stanford in 1982 and lunched with us at my home. We stayed in touch, and it was Ramaphosa who arranged for me to not only observe the constitutional negotiations but also to attend the first African National Congress (“ANC”) conference in 1991 in what was about to become the post-apartheid era, and this is when my initial meeting with Mr. Mandela took place—only a year after his release from prison. At that point we had the briefest exchange with others present, but I recall the warmth in his greeting and welcome to me and others, his charismatic and relaxed manner.
The second meeting was more substantive, in August 1992, where I had about 10 minutes with him alone—again a privilege arranged directly by Ramaphosa. Somehow his initial greeting to me sticks out in my mind more than our subsequent conversation that day about the changes taking place in South Africa and the difficulties of transition: “How do you call yourself?” he said to me when we first met, just as one would say literally in French. I have never been greeted by anyone, before or since, with these words—words that struck me as so courtly, expressed by this older gentleman (he was then younger than I am now) with whom I was made to feel at ease.
Mr. Mandela spoke that day of the perils that he and the ANC confronted in transition, the destabilizing violence in Kwazulu, which appeared to be government-inspired and that appeared to be designed to disrupt the hoped for orderly transition. When the meeting concluded we posed for a photo, which remains prominently on my office wall.Subsequently, Mr. Ramaphosa came again to Stanford and spoke here at the law school. He then arranged for the soon-to-be President Mandela to speak at the law school, a date that was tragically cancelled five or six days before the event was to take place because of a recurrence of the Kwazulu difficulties.
A decade ago, I was able to return to South Africa on my 10th visit there and to meet so many who were in government and other official positions, who had been literally on the run at the time of my first visit to that great country in 1977. What I remember above all else in Pretoria at the inauguration which I attended, is the note of unity, reconciliation, and resolve that President Mandela struck that day—the most memorable and remarkable aspects of all this being that they came in the wake of the horrors of apartheid, which exceed, or at least rival, even those of the United States.
My meetings and contact with President Mandela and my reading about him these many years, convince me that his life constitutes the greatest inspiration for all mankind of which I am aware in my lifetime. Like the world, I mourn his death this day.