The day after Nelson Mandela was released from prison almost 21 years ago, Steve Goldburg happened to be in the right place to meet the revered champion of human rights. It was a meeting Steve will never forget.
This week marks the 21th anniversary of the release from prison of former South African President Nelson Mandela. You may recall that, after nearly three decades of imprisonment, there was little hope that Mandela would ever be set free. His 1990 release was one of the most surprising and profound “upside” moments of the 20th century, one that is often described as the beginning of the end of apartheid. Four years later, Mr. Mandela would become South Africa’s first democratically elected and black president.
Mandela’s historic release from prison holds special significance for me as I had the amazing good fortune to be in the right place at the right time not only to witness it first-hand, but to actually meet him in person.
I was working in Zimbabwe with the World Health Organization at the time of the unanticipated announcement of Mandela’s impending release by then-President F. W. de Klerk. I happened to be staying at the hotel where Mandela was scheduled to arrive for a hastily-organized state dinner the day after his release. I was right there when Mandela and his wife Winnie were ushered out of their car and escorted along a red carpet through the hotel lobby. It felt like the most powerful event of my life! Yet things became even more amazing from here.
I raced into the hotel elevator to return to my room to call family and friends back home and share the incredible news. The elevator was packed. Looking up, to my amazement I found myself in the company of two friends I had first met in the jungles of Zambia but who I hadn’t seen in years. Ironically, we had met on a hiking trip at the time they were in training to become photojournalists who would be ready to cover Mandela’s release from prison, if such an unlikely event were ever to occur.
The three of us were overjoyed to be reunited with each other. My friends, who were insiders to the Mandela event in the hotel, told me to get dressed and they would attempt to sneak me into the state dinner about to take place downstairs! They managed to do so and I was able to be part of the most electrifying and historic evening imaginable, culminating with an address from Mandela. I will never forget his talk: he focused his remarks on reaching into our hearts in order to forgive and to let go of the past so that we could be hopeful and optimistic for the future. You could have heard a pin drop in the room while Mandela was speaking.
At the end of the dinner, I met up with my friends and they asked if I would like to meet Mandela. We patiently waited for an opportunity and when it came, they whispered into his ear.
He looked right into my eyes and said, “I heard about you and your time in the jungle with my boys here.”
I returned his smile and told him, “I heard about you as well, Mr. Mandela…welcome home.”
It amazes me that even though 21 years have passed, these events are still fresh in my mind and heart. I have often reflected on the talk Mandela gave that evening and I marvel at how truly inspiring it was to hear him feel and express what he did after all the years of pain, isolation, and mistreatment he endured. He is, for me, the authentic embodiment of living on the Upside.
Here is CNN’s web page of the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison:
Steve Goldberg is the co-author of Finding the Upside: Practical Wisdom for Challenging Times. You can read more about and purchase the book at: www.findingtheupside.org
“Nelson Mandela release from prison” Photographer unknown