The passing of Mandela, like the death of many iconic figures, has brought back to mind memories not of just the person, but of an era that is also fading. A generation has grown up to adulthood since Apartheid collapsed and South Africa managed a transition of its society that few could have imagined as late as the 1980’s. Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu summarized the challenge now facing his nation “to come together and to believe in ourselves and in each other” so as to refute anxious claims that the nation will go up in flames.
As I listened to the Archbishop’s statement, I was brought back in my own memory to May 16-17, 1989 when I had opportunity to meet and talk with Desmond Tutu in person. He was on a visit to the USA as principal speaker at the American Forum on South Africa in New York City, which included a service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Word came from Washington that President George H. W. Bush would be available for a meeting with the Bishop and others [Alan Bosak, Byers Naude] from South Africa on May 18th. My daughters were Cathedral Choristers, so I had the opportunity to greet the Archbishop “backstage” but the next day was more significant.
I had an office in the World Council of Churches suite at the Interchurch Center on Riverside Drive out of which we promoted Third-World economic development projects. We were somewhat accustomed to having church notables pass through along with political figures, but that morning there was a particular buzz. In the main office, sipping coffee and conversing was Ambassador Andrew Young, Rev. Bill Howard of the National Council of Churches, along with our WCC staffers, all of them awaiting Desmond Tutu. That was when I heard about the pending Presidential audience for which now precise plans had to be made. Up to that time, no US President had made any public endorsement of the Anti-Apatheid movement’s goals of justice and freedom for political prisoners. President Bush had to be persuaded to make such a public statement of support.
Desmond arrived, always the focal point of energy in any room he entered, yet almost always the shortest person in the room as well. Bill Howard turned to me and said, “Jim, we need to use your office for our meeting.” I immediately understood what he was saying and why. The large corner office with its comfortable seats and view of the Hudson was open and available. My office was narrow, sparsely enough appointed that everyone had to cart in their own chair. But the chances of my humble quarters being bugged were dramatically less. Even in that day, long before 9/11 and the NSA, this was a concern to be reckoned with. Happily I consented. Plans were finalized, Bush made his supportive statement and thus increased the diplomatic pressure on the South African government. Nine months afterwards, a gestation period’s time, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison.
Now these are just two events out of thousands that led up to the change. What transpired in my office and in the Oval Office the next morning is subject to interpretation, but my mind keeps drawing a connection between the two and then on to Nelson and Winny exiting the gates. We are but a step or two away from history; witnessing to it if not making it. As the Archbishop has reminded us, history and change for the better come at us one day at a time giving us continuous opportunities to play our small part.