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Mandela’s Life Celebrated at Press Club

by Audrey Hoffer

The dance floor at the center of the National Press Club ballroom erupted in a riot of color, singing, swooping, stomping and rattling shells as 14 teenage girls from the Taratibu Youth Association in Mount Rainier, Md., showcased a traditional South African gumboot dance.

The packed house was entranced by the troupe as it ushered in a two-hour-long special program on the evening of Nov. 26 honoring the life, legacy and values of Nelson Mandela hosted by the International Correspondents’ Committee of the Press Club.

Photos: Audrey Hoffer

The Taratibu Youth Association in Mount Rainier, Md., performs a traditional South African gumboot dance at a celebration of former South African President Nelson Mandela at the National Press Club.

Laudatory, inspiring, gracious and eloquent were among the descriptions given to South Africa’s first post-apartheid president who, at 94 years old, remains an iconic figure.

An “inner peace and calmness radiated out from him amid turmoil all around,” said Gil Klein, NPC president and host of the October 1994 Press Club luncheon that Mandela addressed. “He is a great man.”

South African Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool, born in 1962, the same year Mandela was arrested and convicted of anti-government actions, was taken with the firebrand activist in high school (also see Rasool’s cover profile in the February 2012 issue of The Washington Diplomat.

“I understood that he had unique capabilities as a leader,” he said.

“Mandela’s philosophy — ‘I am because you are’ — established an interdependence and interconnectedness to other people even while he believed that each of us is a unique individual,” said Rasool, who spent a year and a half in prison and two years under house arrest for his anti-apartheid activities. “This was a visionary and new outlook for South Africans.”

And it was a philosophy that required one to hold onto their personal autonomy yet simultaneously cede a bit of it. “He showed it to be absolutely necessary to allow others into your life,” said Rasool. “That was his great empathy.”

This empathy also defined Mandela’s leadership and most likely kept South Africa from descending into chaos after the collapse of the apartheid regime. Despite languishing behind bars for 27 years, when Mandela was finally released in 1990, the revered activist held no grudges and instead advocated a policy of national reconciliation. He reached out to the white minority government and promptly began talks to transform the country into a multiracial democracy, becoming its first black president in 1994.

“It’s easy to have rapport with people who look like you, think like you and have the same heritage, but when you encounter the stranger, the other, when you don’t share the same dreams, that’s when it’s difficult to meet halfway and find commonalities,” the ambassador said.

From left, Myron Belkind, chair of the National Press Club International Correspondents’ Committee; former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Edward Perkins; South African author and journalist Charlene Smith; and Phillip van Niekerk, also a South African journalist, participate in a panel discussion at the National Press Club as part of a program celebrating the “Life, Legacy and Values of Nelson Mandela.”

“Mandela showed us that behind arrogance, behind aggression, behind might is something soft and fragile. He understood people’s fears and vulnerability” and taught us to accept them, Rasool added, noting that he literally embraced his enemies.

A variety of speakers reflected on Mandela’s historic presidency as guests dined on recipes from Ukutya Kwasekhaya’s “Tastes from Nelson Mandela’s Kitchen” prepared by Susan Delbert, executive chef of the National Press Club. Among the delicacies: grilled boerewores (beef and pork sausage with bacon fat); biltong (beef jerky); grilled lamb sosaties (kebabs) with onions and dried fruit; and a Mozambican version of peri-peri spiced chicken livers on potato rolls.

An art exhibit and video presentation also explored Mandela’s enduring legacy. In addition, speakers reflected on the personal impact his leadership and the country’s struggles had on them.

Edward Perkins, former U.S. ambassador to South Africa from 1986 to 1989, said, “South Africa left me a changed person.”

Perkins catapulted to the world stage when then Secretary of State George P. Shultz chose him to be the first African American ambassador to South Africa.

Ordered to fly secretly to Washington to avoid publicity, Perkins met a courteous and hospitable President Ronald Reagan in the White House who told him that America would stand tall and make a difference in South Africa.

Perkins was appointed ambassador with proconsul powers enabling him to make independent decisions on behalf of the U.S. government. He told the Press Club audience that during his tenure, he sought to show that the United States could serve as a model and “that we stand up for issues that are important to us and those we believe are important to the world.”

From left, former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa Edward Perkins; Jan Du Plain, event program coordinator and member of the National Press Club International Correspondents’ Committee; Myron Belkind, chair of NPC International Correspondents’ Committee; and Ambassador of South Africa Ambassador to the United States Ebrahim Rasool attend a program honoring former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Author, reporter and anti-apartheid activist Charlene Smith was the first journalist to investigate South African government-sanctioned death squads. “I lost count of the number of friends tortured and killed, the number of bodies I saw and the number of funerals I attended,” she said.

Phillip van Niekerk, also a South African journalist who wrote for an anti-apartheid paper, said Mandela’s real genius was as a political strategist. “From the palm of his hand he steered the country.”

The ambassador said that Mandela enabled his countrymen to admit their crimes in exchange for reconciliation. That is compromise, which he understood to be the intersection of justice and peace, explained Rasool.

Today compromise is a “dirty word,” but it shouldn’t be, he added. “We need to avoid extremes and build a consensus, a middle ground in the center,” he said, noting that the world is continually being reshaped and all the certainties we held yesterday are being questioned today.

“Now is the time we need someone like Mandela, someone who can put his doubts on the table and enable you to put down yours.”

About the Author

Audrey Hoffer is a freelance writer for The Washington Diplomat.


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