An Icon Passes: The Day I Dined With Nelson Mandela

The author tells of his time living in apartheid South Africa, and later, of an unexpected lunch in Spain with Mandela and Elizabeth Taylor.

Nelson Mandela's Death: A Personal Account, The Day I Dined With Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela: July 18, 1918–Dec. 5, 2013 (Photo: Media 24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, 'Death at Seaworld,' was published in 2012.

Growing up as an apolitical beach bum in 1970s Southern California, I was vaguely aware of the racial oppression and social strife roiling the troubled land of South Africa, and I knew the name Nelson Mandela as someone imprisoned for fighting against the evil of apartheid (Afrikaans for “apartness”). But I had no idea how South Africa and its beloved “Tata,” now gone, would be woven into the fabric of my own life.

When I was 16, I applied to become an AFS exchange student and was thrilled to be selected for one of the coveted spots. I didn’t think through the implications of my destination. I was expecting Belgium, maybe, or Argentina. I didn’t even know AFS went to South Africa. It was October 1976, months after the highly publicized rioting that claimed more than 600 lives in Soweto, the sprawling all-black slum outside Johannesburg. My mom, panicking, phoned the State Department to ensure it was safe.


Inside Joseph’s cramped quarters, Mandela was a hero, a martyr, a saint. But outside, in the comfortable, white South African world where I spent most of my time, Mandela was a terrorist, a Communist, and a deadly threat.

Looking back, I should have refused the trip on moral grounds. But I was 16, ready for adventure, and had no idea what a repressive, racist, quasi-fascist police state I was heading for. AFS sent reading materials on what to expect with the racial situation in my host country, but it made things sound rather 1950s Mississippi, when frankly they were more like 1850s Mississippi.

I was appalled by apartheid. There were four official racial classifications, utterly separated from each other by geography, culture, and often language: whites (English and Afrikaans), blacks (called Bantu), Asians (largely Indians and Chinese), and “coloreds,” mostly a mix of white and Bantu. For purposes of transportation, hotels, and restaurants, Japanese and American blacks (known as “negroes” and “negresses,” to distinguish them from Bantu) were granted “honorary white” status.  

The commuter train to Johannesburg from our suburb of Benoni had 10 cars: Seven of them were marked “First Class—Whites Only,” and they were spacious, clean, and largely empty. The other three cars were marked “Third Class—Non-Whites Only” (there was no Second Class), and they were consistently packed with the nation’s poor, heading to work, cooking and cleaning for white people. I wanted to ride in the Third Class car but would have been arrested.

The whole thing sickened me. It made me want to go home—often. But Jimmy Carter was now president, pushing human rights, and I felt proud to be American. I made it my personal mission to break down the walls of apartheid as best I could, one person at a time.

It wasn’t easy. Black townships were off-limits to whites, and though I could visit Indian friends in the “Asian” township, we had to take separate buses to get there. There were, however, black household servants and gardeners, lots of them, in my all-white, all-English-speaking neighborhood. (English and Afrikaans lived as separately as blacks and whites, with much of the same mutual animosity: This was not a happy country.) Slowly I got to know some of them, especially Joseph, the man my host family called the “houseboy,” even though he was in his 30s. (In other, more racist homes, they were called “native boys,” “African boys,” “floppy boys,” and worse). I, on the other hand, was almost always called “boss” by black Africans.

At night, when he was done cleaning the pool and pruning the hedges, I would visit Joseph in his small room in the back of the house, and we would make tea. He asked about America, and I said that, while not perfect, it was nothing like South Africa. He in turn taught me much about the struggle of his people and about the power and legacy of Nelson Mandela, who was languishing in a harsh offshore prison called Robben Island, near Cape Town.

I learned that Mandela joined the outlawed African National Congress (ANC) as a young man, establishing its Youth League. After the Afrikaans Nationalists took control in 1948, Mandela’s stature as a freedom fighter, and feared radical, only grew. An intelligent and well-educated attorney, he was arrested and prosecuted many times for crimes against the regime but avoided imprisonment until 1962. That year, he was convicted of sabotage and plotting a revolution and sentenced to life in prison.

Inside Joseph’s cramped quarters, Mandela was a hero, a martyr, a saint. But outside, in the comfortable, white South African world where I spent most of my time, Mandela was a terrorist, a Communist, and a deadly threat.

White fear of black retribution, and Communist takeover, was palpable in 1977 South Africa. Angola, to the west, and Mozambique, on the eastern border, had just been decolonized from Portugal and quickly “fallen” to the Communists. The Russians were now about 100 miles from Pretoria, plotting with the new black government in Maputo, and white people were extremely jittery. They fully expected WWIII to break out at their back door.

White South Africans even had a name for that dreaded, inevitable day of reckoning. They called it “the Crunch.” With Russians amassing at the frontier, black Africans would rise up by the millions. They would open the prisons and free Mandela. And then they would exact their blood-filled revenge. I was told our house would be invaded, and we would be sliced to pieces with machetes. My host mother one evening showed me her medicine cabinet and a jar of cyanide pills. “When the crunch comes,” she said, calm as a judge, “there is one in here for each of us.” There was even a pill for the dog. I did not ask if there was one for me.

I was 16, impressionable, 10,000 miles from home, and sincerely terrified. But I still could not picture someone like Joseph taking a machete to butcher me while I slept. One night I asked him about it.

“Would you do that, Joseph?”

A look of grief and horror crossed his face. “Never!” he said. “I could never harm you or this family.” Then he added, with sadness and without malice, “I will kill the family next door. Their houseboy will kill you.”

My terror did not stop at "the Crunch." I was also scared and intimidated by the ultra-right-wing Nationalist government. The Afrikaans, descendants of 16th-century Dutch farmers, made up 60 percent of the white population and therefore the electorate. Many English opposed apartheid but were politically impotent to end it. As English kids, we were harassed and persecuted by the brutal Afrikaans police state.

One night, a high school house party was invaded by a military-style raid because the music was loud. More than 40 men, armed with automatic weapons, attack dogs, and batons and screaming in Afrikaans, began beating kids in the head and throwing them in the police wagon. I remember mumbling something in mortified protest.

"Wat se jy?" (What are you saying?), a massive cop with a blond buzz cut barked at me. He unleashed his lurching German shepherd onto my thigh, leaving a grapefruit-size welt from the puncture wounds. I was arrested, jailed, given a tetanus shot, and forced to pay a fine—and for the shot. They refused to let me phone the U.S. Embassy, calling Jimmy Carter a "f**king peanut."

A few weeks later, one of my best mates disappeared. His family, friends, and the school were frantic. They called the police to report him missing. Four days later he showed up, bedraggled and bruised. He’d been arrested for having two joints in his pocket and taken to the main interrogation center in Johannesburg, where he was tortured and burned with cigarettes as police tried to find the marijuana source, even as they deflected calls from his family. He was sentenced to six lashes with a bullwhip.

Again, I wanted to go home. If this was the way privileged white kids were being treated by the South African police state, what was life like for everyone else? What was life like for Nelson Mandela, out there on windswept Robben Island?

When the long year ended, I visited spectacular Cape Town, where, from shore, you can see Robben Island. “That’s where Mandela is,” I said to my friends. “We’re playing in the surf here, and he’s right over there, in prison. Don’t you care?” “He’s a terrorist and a Communist” came the standard reply.

Flash-forward a decade. It’s 1986, and I am now an adult living in New York and working as scheduler to Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, the city’s leading African-American politician and future mayor. Dinkins was one of the most outspoken proponents of releasing Mandela from prison, and many people on staff were active in the campaign. When I went to work for Dinkins’ mayoral campaign, in 1989, Mandela was a hot political issue. Many on the American right still dismissed him as, yes, a terrorist and a Communist. But Dinkins and others amassed a powerful international crusade—“Free Nelson Mandela”—that became a political mantra and a hit song.

In 1990, it happened, and the world rejoiced.

Now free, Mandela became ANC head and quickly began negotiations with conservative President de Klerk to get rid of apartheid and hold open elections for all. They were scheduled for 1994.

There was no blood, no machetes, no cyanide, no “crunch,” just a peace-filled, forgiving, electrifying leader, finally unshackled, who would guide the beloved country away from so many tears.

In 1992, I was working as press secretary at the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) when we were selected to share the annual Príncipe de Asturias Award, sort of the Nobel Prize of the Spanish-speaking world, issued by Crown Prince Felipe in Oviedo, Spain. The other winner was Nelson Mandela.

I will never forget it.

My main task the day of the ceremony was to arrange a photo op with Mandela and Elizabeth Taylor, amfAR’s cofounder, who was with us in Spain for the award. At the hotel reception before lunch, I walked right up to one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century and introduced myself.

The man beamed with a lightness and sincerity I had never felt before. His eyes twinkled, and his smile never faded. He was also very tall. I felt awkward—no, guilty—telling him I’d been an exchange student in South Africa in the bad old days, but he was genuinely interested in my experiences there.

Then I mentioned my old boss David Dinkins. Mandela radiated, and he almost teared up. He clearly loved Dinkins and his wife, Joyce. “Please give them my very best!” he said. He also agreed to the photo op with Elizabeth Taylor.

At the appointed hour, I grabbed the AP photographer and led the movie star to Mandela’s suite. After a few shots, I motioned to the photographer that we needed to let them have some private time.

“Oh no!” Mandela protested. “Please! David, sit down and join us for tea.”

Well, I thought, showing the photographer out, if Nelson Mandela insists…

They spoke of freedom and of AIDS in Africa. The two world icons, saucers on their laps, flirted like schoolkids. Mandela said he’d watched Taylor’s films while incarcerated, “and it gave me hope to carry on, knowing such beautiful women were out there.” Taylor blushed like a sugar beet.

The next year, Mandela won the Nobel Prize, and the year after that, 1994, he became president of a very new South Africa, obliterating apartheid’s bitter legacy by fighting poverty, fostering racial harmony, and investigating human rights abuses.

That same year, I ran into Dinkins at a political function.

“Mr. Mayor!” I greeted him. “Nelson Mandela says hello and sends his love to you and Joyce.”

I have never delivered a message with more pride or honor.

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