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My Road to Madiba’s Memorial

December 11, 2013

Johannesburg, South Africa

December 11, 2013

In late August my wife and I scheduled a trip to see her cousin in Windhoek, Namibia. When Nelson Mandela’s health took a turn for the worse a few weeks ago I mentioned to my mentor, Belva Davis, that I might try to cover the story if he died while I was in Southern Africa.

Lois and I flew to Frankfurt on the fourth of December and arrived in Johannesburg on the morning of the sixth. I learned of Mandela’s passing during our layover and did some interviews and filed a report with CBS Radio and KCBS. The network was especially pleased because it had no one in the region.

Before boarding our flight to Windhoek I talked with the network about the possibility of covering the memorial service. The bottom line was, while it wouldn’t pay my travel expenses, it would put me to work if I happened to be in town.

It was an expensive, but easy, decision. I flew back to Johannesburg on Monday and made my way to FNB Stadium Tuesday morning in the steady rain. There were concerns that the weather would prevent people from coming out. That was partially true. More on that later.

With 90 world leaders in attendance I was surprised that there was not more security. There WAS a large police presence but I walked into the stadium without going through any kind of screening.

The first person I met was Sean Pardo. “I think it’s such a great honor to pay our respects and last homage to a great, pious, graceful, gracious and harmonious leader like the father of our nation, Tata Madiba” he said.

He was like many dressed in Mandela t-shirts, carrying the national flag or dressed in color of the African National Congress. Some groups marched into the stadium singing freedom songs. I was inspired. The atmosphere reminded me of Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.

I spent the day interviewing members of the crowd and reporting their comments live for a number of radio stations in the U.S and Canada. I only caught pieces of the speeches but two things from the public announcements stayed with me: one was the huge cheer that went up when the arrival of former South Africa President F. W. deKlerk — who ordered Mandela’s release from prison in 1990 — was announced; the other was the tremendous ovation U.S. President Barack Obama received.

The speeches were long but the rain-soaked crowd didn’t seem to care. The upper decks were full because the lip of the 90,000-seat stadium protected people from the rain. The bottom decks were a sea of umbrellas but the rain was actually a good omen.

“In lots of African cultures and customs rain (at a memorial service) is a symbol that this person was really special,” said Melissa Chavila, who was born in Mali, now lives in South Africa and works as a business researcher and writer. 

“I’ve never seen so much rain in one day in the middle of summer and that, to me, is very symbolic of how significant Madiba was.”

Mandela was indeed significant. It is why so many world leaders came to pay their final respects. Eight of them spoke, including Obama who talked about how he was influenced by Mandela.

“Over thirty years ago, while still a student, I learned of Mandela and the struggles in this land,” the President told the crowd.

“ It stirred something in me. It woke me up to my responsibilities – to others, and to myself – and set me on an improbable journey that finds me here today. And while I will always fall short of Madiba’s example, he makes me want to be better.”

Chavila said Mandela’s ability to unite, to forgive and his desire for reconciliation will benefit all of Africa and the world.

“That is a very important message especially in this day and what we’ve been going through in this global community,” she said.

I have covered news all over the world but it was a big deal to leave my wife on vacation in Namibia and fly to South Africa to cover this historic event.

As a member of the National Association of Black Journalists – and now as its President  — I have worked tirelessly for jobs, promotions and opportunities for NABJ members. We have often criticized our companies for assigning “us” to cover “Black” stories. Often we don’t get a chance to cover the high-profile beats (see White House press pool) or high-profile stories.

But this is one time I can’t complain too much because of all the NABJ members I greeted at FNB Stadium in Johannesburg.

It was great seeing Byron Pitts from ABC, Bill Whitaker from CBS, NBC’s Lester Holt, NPR producer Jonathan Blakely, Al Jazeera America’s Karl Bostic and James Blue from Arise TV.

CBS’ Alphonso Van Marsh was at the Mandela home in Soweto as was CNN’s Errol Barnett, a young man who was very impressive. I was hoping to meet him at the stadium but CNN sent in the big guns, Anderson Cooper and Christiane Amanpour.

This is one of those stories that leave you exhausted but exhilarated. I’m glad I came.

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