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When Nelson Mandela was released from his 27-year imprisonment in South Africa in February 1990, hundreds of journalists from around the world descended on Soweto, desperate for an interview. I was among them, and the staff that had quickly formed around Mandela rebuffed me as they did almost everyone else. But then came a lucky break: It turned out that Mandela had read my book on the U.S. civil-rights movement while he was in prison, and through his friends I was able to get in to see him.
An interview was going to be difficult to execute. Mandela, the international symbol of resistance to South Africa’s apartheid policy who had emerged triumphant, was besieged by well-wishers and congratulatory mail. We struck a deal: If I would help him with his correspondence, we could talk together.
Over three days at his modest home at 8115 Vilakazi Street, we spoke about many subjects, but the conversation amounted to a two-way interview. I would ask Mandela about his fight against apartheid and what it was like to inspire people around the world who were struggling for freedom. He would ask me about a subject that seemed to fascinate him: race and politics in America.
Mandela had not been so isolated during the latter stages of his captivity that he was unfamiliar with world events. He had known about American economic sanctions against the South African government—an expression of “the best ideal of the American people,” he said. He knew that liberal Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy could have been expected to back the sanctions, but he was absorbed by the fact that Bob Dole, a conservative Republican senator, also backed them. Support for the sanctions was a “litmus test” of how the all-white Senate felt about equal rights for black people in the U.S. and world-wide, Mandela said.
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