Invoking the names of American heroes and language from the Declaration of Independence, a tough-talking Nelson Mandela drew a rousing reception Tuesday as he became the first black private citizen to address a joint session of Congress.
“Our people demand democracy,” Mandela said during a 33-minute speech, by far the longest and most eloquent yet on his 12-day, eight-city U.S. tour. “Unhappily, our people continue to die to this day, victims of the armed agents of the state.”
The South African people, he said, “thirst” for the day when the government will not turn its guns against them for asserting that “equality, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are fundamental human rights which are not only inalienable but must, if necessary, be defended with the weapons of war.”
Striking an uncharacteristically personal note, Mandela, who was released in February after 27 years in prison, said:
“We went to jail because it was impossible to sit still while the obscenity of the apartheid system was being imposed on our people. It would have been immoral to keep quiet while a racist tyranny sought to reduce an entire people into a status worse than that of the beasts of the forest.”
Standing ramrod straight in the Speaker’s well, the tall, slender Mandela was interrupted by applause more than 15 times, including several standing ovations that visibly elated members of his delegation. Also in the audience were members of President Bush’s Cabinet, Washington’s diplomatic corps and the Joint Chiefs of Staff led by its chairman, Gen. Colin L. Powell.
After his address, it took Mandela more than five minutes to work his way through a crush of cheering, whistling, back-slapping well-wishers as he exited the packed House chamber.
“Marvelous,” Wyoming Sen. Alan K. Simpson, the Republican whip, told Mandela as they shook hands.
Not once during his appearance did Mandela raise a fist, as he has at virtually every stop since he landed in New York last Wednesday morning. Instead, he simply smiled and waved repeatedly.
Later in the day, the deputy president of the African National Congress met with Senate and House leaders and members of the Senate Foreign Relations and the House Foreign Affairs committees.
After a scheduled dinner with members of the ANC in the Washington area, Mandela attended an evening rally at the Washington Convention Center, which sold out all 19,000 tickets within hours last week.
Mandela began a busy Tuesday on Capitol Hill with a breakfast hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus that also was attended by spouses and selected guests, including Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, Texas Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ann Richards, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and singer Harry Belafonte.
“It is very rare that people of different political affiliations should be so united in supporting a cause,” Mandela told them. “As far as we are concerned, it is very difficult to draw a distinction between Democrats and Republicans.”
But some members of Congress stayed away from Mandela’s subsequent speech, including Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who had fought vigorously but unsuccessfully against the imposition of sanctions against Pretoria.
Another was Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton), who had been on the House floor until shortly before Mandela’s arrival. He said that he boycotted “as a matter of principle” and said Mandela is more like the 1960s revolutionary H. Rap Brown than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But that was a decidedly minority viewpoint on Capitol Hill.
“To be there, to see him, to have him thank members of the Congressional Black Caucus, makes my lifetime in politics worthwhile,” said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who represents Harlem, where Mandela got a tumultuous greeting last week.
Despite a punishing itinerary, Mandela’s tour organizers at the last minute added to his schedule a Tuesday noon rally on Pennsylvania Avenue. But Mandela’s motorcade, going from the Capitol to his downtown hotel, did not stop at Freedom Plaza, where several hundred disappointed people had gathered in front of Washington’s City Hall.
Mandela and his 13-member delegation are to depart this morning for Atlanta, with subsequent stops in Miami, Detroit and--on Friday--Los Angeles. Mandela is to leave the United States from Oakland on Sunday.
As an eleventh-hour addition to his Los Angeles visit, a private meeting has been scheduled between Mandela and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who was jailed for 8 1/2 years before he was allowed to emigrate to Israel.
Mandela, 71, still has stops in England, Ireland and various cities in Africa before returning to Soweto in mid-July, according to one Mandela adviser, Zwelahke Sisulu.
In addressing Congress, Mandela was virtually guaranteed a largely friendly audience. Four years ago. Congress overrode President Ronald Reagan’s veto and imposed economic sanctions, including trade and travel restrictions, against South Africa.
On Tuesday, Mandela urged Congress to let the South African people decide when the sanctions should be lifted.
“The purpose for which they were imposed has not yet been achieved,” he said. “We have yet to arrive at the point when we can say that South Africa is set on an irreversible course leading to its transformation into a united, democratic and non-racial country.”
Mandela brought the packed House chamber and guest gallery to its feet by saying that black South Africans who are familiar with the works of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass and King will fight for freedom, just as those American heroes did.
Mandela thanked Congress for helping enable many black South Africans “to emerge from the darkness of the prison cell and join the contemporary process of the renewal of the world.” With continued American moral and economic support, South Africa will become “an oasis of good race relations,” Mandela said.
“It must surely be that there will be born a country on the southern tip of Africa which you will be proud to call a friend and an ally,” he said.
“Let that day come now. Let us keep our arms locked together so that we form a solid phalanx against racism to ensure that that day comes now. Peace will not come to our country and region until the apartheid system is ended.”