Written by Sharon Gelman; above photo: ©ANSA and Peter McKenzie
These days, my thoughts are frequently with Nelson Mandela. I am praying for his healing and also hoping we’ll all find the strength to let him go with grace and dignity when he is ready to depart this world.
For the past 22 years, I’ve headed Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA), formerly Artists for a Free South Africa (AFSA). When AFSA was founded in 1989 by Alfre Woodard, Danny Glover, Mary Steenburgen, Blair Underwood, CCH Pounder and friends, we didn’t think we’d live to see apartheid fall nor did we dare dream that Nelson Mandela would one day be president. We just knew supporting the fight against apartheid was the right thing to do. However, scarcely a year later, I found myself at a church, waiting for Madiba’s release from prison. We sang and danced through the night until he finally appeared on the TV, walking free after 27 years. He was dignified and unbowed and his face was full of joy.
Soon after, Mr. Mandela came to L.A. as part of a world tour. Without much lead time, AFSA helped plan a gala that raised over a million dollars. In the midst of our event, his doctor asked me to bring him some water without ice. I’ve never been more honored or more careful about pouring water into a glass.
That night, Alfre introduced Madiba with an impassioned speech that went something like, “Tata Mandela, I wish I were a million people toyi-toying to welcome you here tonight. I wish I were the voices of 10,000 African woman ululating, but I am just one black woman.”¯ In the midst of her speech, she interrupted herself and said, “Madiba, you look so tired. Are you getting enough rest? How long will you be in town? Do you have time to come to my house for dinner? I make such good chicken.”
Many people have told me it was Madiba’s favorite introduction of all time. I imagine that’s because everyone celebrates him as an icon, but Alfre also expressed genuine concern for him just as a fellow human being who was in the midst of a punishing schedule. It’s so easy to put a revered leader on a pedestal and forget he’s also a person with the same basic needs we all have. Recognizing that humanity also means we can’t leave the job of fixing the world to our heroes. Each of us has the capacity and responsibility to make a difference in ways both big and small.
In the months leading up to South Africa’s first democratic elections, I organized a delegation of artists to work alongside local voter education groups. For weeks I stayed up all night making international calls and was beside myself when I received word that Mr. Mandela wanted to host a private luncheon with the delegation. I immediately asked a Zulu friend to teach me how to greet Madiba in Xhosa and practiced over and over saying Molo, Tata (Greetings, Father) while bowing my head.
Our delegation, including Danny Glover, Angela Bassett, CCH Pounder, Alexandra Paul and Delroy Lindo, was joined by great South African artists, like Johnny Clegg and Caiphus Semenya. Together, we ventured into townships, urban centers and rural villages, working alongside local nonprofits to educate thousands of future voters. Journalists and cameras followed the celebrities, bringing information about how to cast a ballot to millions more. We also called on people and governments around the world to do everything possible to ensure that the elections were free and fair. It was remarkable to be part of something so historic.
When the time came to greet Mr. Mandela, I did what I had practiced, using the only two Xhosa words I knew. He took my hands, made a delighted “Ahhh” sound and proceeded to answer me in a torrent of Xhosa. I was so wowed and sleep deprived, I didn’t have the presence of mind to tell him I could not understand a word he was saying. To this day, I wonder what it was.
We then ate lunch with him and a few younger ANC leaders, while Madiba graciously acknowledged the important work artists had done to help end apartheid. He gave us more credit than we deserved, which made us vow to work even harder.
Over the years, ANSA has raised over $9 million for effective African organizations, shipped tons of books and medical supplies to poor communities and helped fight the spread of AIDS. We always get back more than we’re able to give, however, through the friendships forged with extraordinary activists and leaders as well as the adults and children in communities we’ve sought to assist. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing Mr. Mandela 15 or 20 times, often at large events where I’m just grateful to be in his presence, yet sometimes in more intimate settings.
After Mr. Mandela was elected president, we helped the White House compile its guest list for the official State Dinner in his honor. It was thrilling to see our hero honored by President Clinton, who clearly looked up to the elder statesman. As Alfre waited in the receiving line, President Mandela spotted her and waved, calling out, “Alfre, Alfre! Do you remember me? It’s me, Nelson!”
In 1995, I planned the first visit to South Africa for Denzel and Pauletta Washington and their children. We brought them to meet President Madiba, and as he was saying hello to all of us, the four-year-old Washington twins spontaneously climbed up into his lap. Their mother chided them to stop, but President Mandela was clearly thrilled to be holding them. They stayed there while he spoke to the two older children about school.
Eventually Mr. Mandela turned his attention back to the adults. Denzel asked how he could be of help, and Madiba said, “Please support my Children’s Fund.”¯ We could all see how genuine his love for children was.
Back at the hotel, Denzel told me that they were donating a million dollars, which was a great deal of money for them as Denzel was not yet starring in any blockbuster films. At that time, it was also the largest gift anyone had given to any of Mr. Mandela’s causes. The Washingtons wanted the gift kept quiet as they felt that was the most spiritual way to be generous. I respected that instinct yet still asked if they’d consider announcing their gift and invite people around the world to join them in supporting the Children’s Fund. They agreed, and soon others in the U.S. and Europe matched their gift.
In 2000, shortly after Madiba stepped down from the presidency, we planned a series of private meetings for him in L.A. that raised $3 million in pledges for his Nelson Mandela Foundation. A hotel donated its beautiful penthouse for his use, which took up the entire top floor and came with its own chambermaid. The woman told us she’d never done so little for any guest since he rose before dawn each morning, immediately made his bed with perfect hospital corners and cleaned up after himself. Madiba’s legendary discipline, humility and self-sufficiency were clearly real.
The last time I saw Mr. Mandela was in 2006 when I brought another delegation to South Africa. ANSA board members and lead donors, including Sam Jackson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Carlos Santana, Deborah Santana, Alfre Woodard, Roderick Spencer, CCH Pounder, Jurnee Smollett and I, attended a huge 75th birthday party for our beloved Archbishop Tutu. Madiba was there as were our dear friends and advisors Ahmed “Kathy”¯ Kathrada and Barbara Hogan and other struggle heroes. It was overwhelming to be in a room with so many brave, ethical people who’d freed a nation and built a new democracy. Madiba stood up and toasted the Archbishop, quipping that he was officially welcoming him into the club of very old men.
The next day our delegation went with Kathy to spend a little time with Madiba. He was clearly tired from the previous night’s festivities, yet he was still in a playful mood. CCH had on a beautiful skirt made from material printed with his image, and he teased, “But you must give this to me!” At one point, Madiba looked up and saw that Alfre was in the room. He asked, “Alfre, my dear, how have you been?,”¯ and his face was again full of joy.
Sharon Gelman is a writer and the longtime executive director of Artists for a New South Africa www.ansafrica.org
Photo Credit: Sharon Gelman