Nelson Mandela’s death brings to mind two times I came close to the great man.  While stationed at our Consulate General in Johannesburg in 1987 I received a phone call from our embassy in Pretoria.  Our ambassador who was an African-American wanted to see Nelson who was still in jail at that time. The embassy staff knew that the allocation of  the limited visits to see him was controlled by his wife Winnie and wanted me to set up a meeting with her for the ambassador.  I replied, “what is in it for me?”   The embassy asked, “what did I mean?”  I replied I would set up the meeting if the ambassador also saw a couple of key people in Soweto, the huge housing complex for blacks outside Johannesburg.   They replied okay.

I took the ambassador to meet the President of the Soweto Chamber of Commerce who with Winnie’s brother-in-law Gil Kaba took us to meet Winnie.  At one point we stopped our cars in front of a typical Soweto home.  Gil got out and in a few minutes came back with Winnie in tow.  Our ambassador had a conversation with her on the walkway in front of the house.  He made his pitch to see Nelson and Winnie said she would do what she could

When we got to our car he ambassador asked me to write a report on his meeting with Winnie.  I said there was not much to say except he met Winnie and asked to see Nelson.  The ambassador insisted that it was an important event to report.  I got the message and wrote a glowing report of his “historic” meeting with Winnie.  In spite of his request, our ambassador never met Nelson.

A few years later I was an observer of the 1992 election of Nelson as the first post-Apartheid president of South Africa.  My summary comment was that the conduct of the first all inclusive election in the country would make the Mexicans proud of their elections.  The South African election was filled with manipulation of the votes and other irregularities. However, the official conclusion of the international observers group was that the election had been free and “substantially”  fair.

Following the election an American friend of mine, who owned a business in Johannesburg, and I went to the inauguration of President Mandela.  As I stood there watching a really “historic” event I thought to myself, I had witnessed up close the end of Apartheid and the beginning of the “New South Africa.”  Quite a privilege.