Public television is going to showcase a struggle that took many decades to complete. It occurred in South Africa and it involved someone I once had the honor of seeing in person.
I want to share a bit of that experience on the eve of an Independent Lens showing of “Have You Heard From Johannesburg,” which will air Sunday and Monday night on KACV-TV.
The man’s name is Nelson Mandela. He stood in a room filled with journalists who in July 2004 had traveled to Bangkok, Thailand to attend the International Conference on AIDS. I stood about 40 feet or so from Mandela. I would have pictures to prove it, except for one thing: We were advised prior to the former South African president’s arrival that no flash pictures would be allowed. Mandela suffers from extreme sensitivity to light because of the two decades-plus he spent in darkness while a prisoner of his government on Robbin Island. I put my camera away.
Mandela was at the AIDS conference to speak briefly about another communicable disease, tuberculosis, which he contracted while he was held prisoner. Mandela believed that since much of the world’s health expertise was focused on AIDS at this conference, he’d grab a bit of attention on behalf of those who suffer from TB, as he did.
He entered the room and spoke for just 5 or 6 minutes. Mandela was 86 at the time and was in frail health. He needed help getting to the lecturn. His request was simple: Please give TB the attention you’re giving AIDS, because it, too, is causing misery and suffering.
It’s difficult to describe the aura this man cast in a room full of individuals supposedly immune to the impact of one person’s presence. I, however, hereby admit to being star-struck at the sight of this individual. I kind of compare it to what someone once said of Bobby Kennedy: When he walks into a room, everyone else in it turns to black and white. Nelson Mandela has that same effect on a crowd.
I’ve known of his struggle. He fought to obtain the rights of full citizenship to blacks who comprise the vast majority of those who live in South Africa. He led demonstrations and protests in the early 1960s against the apartheid policy that established two societies: one for whites that granted them full citizenship and one for blacks that provided them none of that.
And what did Mandela get for his efforts? Twenty-seven years of imprisonment. He would emerge in the early 1990s victorious in his struggle. His country’s government realized that it couldn’t maintain that policy and it changed and it released Mandela from his bondage.
Mandela would go on to become his country’s first black president. I recall the blocks-long lines of South Africans waiting to cast the first votes in their lives. They did so because of Nelson Mandela, who led the way with the strength of his belief in what he sought to accomplish.
Independent Lens, which features documentaries from independent filmmakers, will broadcast “From Selma to Soweto” at 3 p.m. Sunday, and “The Bottom Line” at 9 p.m. Monday, on KACV.
Nelson Mandela, of course, isn’t the only player in this compelling political drama. He is, however, the main attraction.
And I’ll acknowledge this as well: Of all the individuals I’ve had the honor of seeing up close, let alone meeting, Nelson Mandela — who I consider to be one of history’s most heroic political figures — ranks at the top.