The lion and prophet of South Africa has died

Armstrong Williams | 12/13/2013, 11:01 a.m.
Remembering when Robert J. Brown arranged for me to be one of the first to interview Mandela and to act ...
Armstrong Williams

In February and March of 1990, I had a profoundly life-changing experience. At the time, I was working for Robert J. Brown, former aide to President Richard M. Nixon, as a vice president for the international division of Brown’s B&C Associates. The position required my spending many months in South Africa. Never in America, before or since, had I felt and seen such racism, raw and ugly, as was laid bare in South Africa, where Blacks were treated as chattel and subhuman. I was treated that way myself until they heard my accent or saw my passport. Suddenly, I was OK to the racist throngs and treated with all respect. Only my U.S. passport differentiated me from other Blacks, but apparently that was enough.

Very quickly, this exposure started to harden me, and for the first time, hate began to seep within my heart. But then, on Feb. 11, Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. Brown had been a friend to Mandela and his wife, Winnie, and he arranged for me to be one of the first to interview Mandela and to act as his personal secretary after his early release from prison.

Every day, Mandela would come into the office and express his gratitude to the staff, which consisted of Juan Williams and myself. He would personally offer us cookies and tea. This certainly was not the stoic figure of defiance that I had expected.

When it came time for me to interview him, he opened my eyes while reinforcing the teaching of my parents. He reluctantly told me of the abuse heaped upon the Black prisoners by the white guards. I will not go into the gratuitous details, but the guards would degrade the inmates in ways that amount to torture in order to establish their control. My blood slowly began to boil as he poured out the tales of his prison life, but then something amazing happened.

“The first lesson is forgiveness,” he said. “You must not allow hate to fester in your brain. You can never allow racism, hatred and bitterness to rent space in your head.”

These words were profound. Despite the years of fighting apartheid and surviving prison, Mandela had forgiven all those who had attempted to ruin or shatter him. If this man could purge hate from his mind for what he endured, then surely I, who had borne much less, must find it in myself to do the same. And so hatred was evicted from my soul, never to rent space again.

Mandela taught me much about life that day and during the few weeks I worked with him. He believed that forgiveness and love were the only ways to heal South Africa and lead it into a brighter tomorrow. You cannot take the mantle of leadership with hate if you hope to succeed, and the absolution turned those who had once been his enemies into footstools. He dispersed other tips about exercising daily and eating right, which I again took to heart and practice to this day.