When Nelson Mandela visited Los Angeles

Nelson Mandela shows off the key to the city he received from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley during a ceremony at City Hall on June 29, 1990. At right, Patt Morrison's press credential.
(Los Angeles Times)

Twenty-three years ago, for barely 24 hours, Nelson Mandela visited Los Angeles.

It was 1990, and he had been a free man for only a handful of months, but he had been a symbol for years -- of endurance, of the black-and-white apartheid battle in South Africa.

He was not yet a Nobel Peace Prize co-winner, not yet the president of the new post-apartheid South Africa. But in his 10 days in the United States, he was welcomed at the White House by President George H.W. Bush. Vice President Dan Quayle called him “a symbol of freedom.” A joint session of Congress gave him 15 standing ovations in a 33-minute speech. His socialist politics were incidental to his story; almost anyone with a cause -- or a campaign -- wanted a piece of him, strategizing to get in the same shot as Mandela.

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The poor man was then 71 years old, and here were stadiums filling up with people wanting to hear him. New York arranged its signature welcome, a ticker-tape parade.

It was like that everywhere on his tour, whose goals were pressing the United States to keep the pressure of sanctions on the white South African government and to raise money for the African National Congress, which Mandela served as deputy president. But Mandela’s reception was that of a rock star, not a politician. His events sold out about as fast as tickets to Comic-Con (and this was before the Internet).

In Detroit, the mayor, the UAW and some Baptist ministers wrangled over who deserved the credit for getting Mandela to visit. In Los Angeles, a tug-of-war broke out between local ANC factions over who was in charge of his schedule; the American organizers headed by Rep. Maxine Waters prevailed.

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Once he landed at LAX (two hours late), local television stations covered him live. Imagine -- no freeway chase, no sirens, just an elderly man shaking hands and talking. The L.A. Times printed eight stories about his one-day visit. Take a look at the number on my press credential from the State Department for covering Mandela: No. 7,035. Even if they started numbering at 6,000, that’s more than 1,000 reporters, producers, photographers, all covering a 10-day visit.

Times staffers could stand at the newsroom windows and look across the street to the crowds at City Hall, where the future first black president of South Africa met privately with the first black mayor of Los Angeles. Men standing on the roof of a bus shelter unrolled a banner reading “Greetings Mandela From the Homeless.” At the Biltmore Hotel, he met with former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky. Mandela filled the Coliseum, filled the streets, filled the Exposition Park armory, with glamorous guests paying as much as $50,000.

Even case-hardened reporters felt there was something out of the ordinary about this man. In the middle of the hubbub, he was self-possessed -- not aloof but not hail-fellow-well-met in the manner of some politicians. This man five months out of prison acknowledged us ink-stained wretches gaggling along with him with the composure of someone who had been doing it for a lifetime.

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If he carried himself like a king, well, he was born into a princely African clan. A teenaged boy who saw him here said wonderingly: “You sort of felt like you were in medieval times, seeing a king.”

As with Elie Wiesel, another Nobel Peace Prize winner and a man I interviewed, I found myself looking at Mandela’s eyes, looking at how they looked, where they looked, and most of all thinking of what horrors those compelling eyes had beheld.

The armory event alone raised more than $1 million for Mandela to take home to South Africa, most of it from entertainment-world stars who were, for once, playing the roles of extras.

The movies, he told them, “were our window on life outside” prison walls. And when he was a boy, the Tarzan films, with their hordes of back-lot African savages, left him “uneasy and disturbed.” As a man, he said, he watched Sidney Poitier -- who was there listening -- star in the 1951 film of the seminal South African novel of apartheid, “Cry, the Beloved Country.” It was “a damning indictment of apartheid,” he said, that nearly 40 years thereafter, “our beloved country is still crying.”


I had read that book when I was 12 or 13, and it left a profound mark on me. Passages from it came back to me then, this one first among them:

“But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.”

It is a secret that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela used up his life and strength to unlock.



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