Nelson Mandela was surrounded, and I mean surrounded, by newspaper editors. They were in front of him, on each side of him, and behind him.
He was sitting in the shade of an overhanging roof outside in the veranda of a home of a well-to-do South African author in suburban Johannesburg. He spoke well, in sentences and paragraphs. No stammering or pauses. Nothing we asked surprised him.
Meanwhile, under the hot African sun, a few feet away stood the cook doing the barbecue.
The time, in early 1993, was pivotal in South African history. Mandela was a hero and symbol of resistance to the forces of evil worldwide. He had been out of prison for three years, having spent 27 years there for fighting apartheid.
But now apartheid was crumbling. Mandela and F.W. de Klerk would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1993. Multi-race elections were coming.
The conversation with him in a pleasant South African neighborhood covered many topics: monetary policy, relationships with other countries and the like. He would not talk about his time in prison, much of it spent on the notorious Robben Island, a barren outcropping off Cape Town. (It’s now a monument and museum and looks much better than it did in Mandela’s time there.)
We broke for lunch and sipped cool drinks as we ate the cook’s meal. I can’t remember what he was cooking; a goat, for all I know. Mandela was the center of attention, naturally.
Meanwhile, still in the sun, the man at the barbecue was breaking down his equipment.
The conversation did not ease up. Still more questions: What is the connection between the African National Congress and Communists? He graciously posed for pictures with all of us.
The cook started to leave. And I don’t know whether anyone but Mandela noticed. Mandela got up from his seat and stopped the cook. He shook hands, stood close to him, spoke softly. As I recall, Mandela asked for photos to be taken of him with the cook.
A year later, on April 27, 1994, Mandela voted for the first time in his life, and I suspect the cook did, too. On May 10, Mandela was inaugurated as first president of a democratic, multi-racial South Africa, perhaps the most widely admired and respected man in the world. The cook probably agrees.