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Notes From Mandela's 90th Birthday in London

07/19/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In London last week my wife, Alfre Woodard, and I got to spend a half hour alone with Nelson Mandela. Now, a cynic might say this audience was because of Mandela's well-known fondness for beautiful, celebrated women and I was allowed to be there only by a technicality. After all, this is a man who famously called the Spice Girls his "heroes" -- although, in that case, I suspect he was playfully engaged in the Xhosa tradition of praise singing, which is the opposite of whatever South Africans might call 'playing the dozens.' In praise singing, instead of grandiose insults, no compliment is over-the-top enough. Nothing else adequately explains why Nelson Mandela would call the Spice Girls his heroes.

Anyway, the fact is, we go almost two decades back with Mandela. As early as 1987 when Mandela was still in prison, Alfre, already a passionate anti-apartheid activist, won an Emmy for playing his wife, Winnie, in HBO's Mandela (a film he reportedly saw while still a prisoner). Then in 1989 we helped to found an organization (Artists for a Free South Africa -- AFSA), which was part of the effort to maintain US Government sanctions against the crumbling apartheid regime, despite George H.W. Bush's efforts to repeal them. AFSA has since become ANSA; Artists for a New South Africa. We're still in South Africa, on the ground, battling the AIDS pandemic and it's many consequences. So, over the years we've spent time with Mr. Mandela in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Monaco, New York, and Los Angeles. His 90th Birthday Celebration in London was a chance for us to see him again, maybe for the last time. Which is why we found ourselves entering The Dorchester Hotel near Hyde Park, last Wednesday afternoon.

As soon as we walked in a tall female concierge approached, and escorted us to the elevators. The Dorchester is one of those rare hotels that share a particular hush, of muted luxury and massive, but invisible, security. That man by the door, in the dark suit, might offer a perfect Martini, or shoot you with a tranquilizer gun. Either way, he'll be discreet.

I longed to stop at the bar for a nerve dampening cocktail, but the slender concierge swept us along. We'd heard that Mandela was meeting Prime Minister Gordon Brown before us. Surely they had lots to talk about. Brown might even ask him to take over for a couple of weeks to get his miserable approval rating out of the toilet.

The elevator was surprisingly small, probably an original, built back when small and exquisite was better than big and showy. The brass buttons gleamed softly. The scrollwork on the curved ceiling made it feel like we were inside a petrified wedding cake. I was starting to panic. What could I possibly say to this magnificent old man?

At the end of the hallway outside his suite, a couple of hotel workers, white women with Slavic faces, peeked at us, curious to see who was next.

We were greeted by his security detail, three burly South African men; one white, one 'colored', one black. They smiled and shook our hands. I spotted Mr. Mandela through a door, seated, with his feet up, wearing one of his beautiful shirts; black and grey with tiny rhinestones. (At a live charity auction in Monaco -- the last time we'd seen him -- a prize item was a quilt made from small pieces of these so-called 'Madiba Shirts'. One of the filthy rich tax-dodgers in the room paid close to a million Euro for it.)

Zelda is Mandela's closest aide, his 'body-man'. She's a big Afrikaaner woman who grew up in a staunchly conservative part of South Africa. She's funny, self-deprecating, permanently sleep-deprived, and not popular with many people who used to have easier access to him. As she ushers us in I wonder how much the distance she's traveled in her life has cost her.

The room is cream colored, and plush. A camera crew and still photographer occupy one corner. After shaking hands with Madiba (as he is lovingly known) we sit on the couch and I find that I'm hiding behind my wife. Which works well, since she has no trouble talking. She's brought gifts, pictures, a birthday tribute, all of which he receives with radiant smiles and hearty phrases. "That's very good.", and, "Oh, I see!" He seems alert and in good spirits. I'm suddenly reminded of my long deceased father, who also had a gift for being personable and charming, even late in his life, when his senses, and his mind, were failing him. Truth is, Mandela can't hear or see well, and he doesn't remember everyone. My father's standard answer when he got confused was, "Isn't that remarkable!"

Mandela's is, "Oh, that's very good!"

It's called finesse.

Alfre read him her birthday greeting, a performance really, which he clearly enjoyed. Then she requested the cameraman stop recording before asking Mandela what he thought about the situation in Zimbabwe.

There was a pause. He frowned, took a breath, and said, "You know, Robert Mugabe is not a democrat."

Another pause.

Zelda did a playful eye-roll, "Ya think?!"

I suppressed a laugh.

Then Mandela told of how, when Charles Taylor, the despot of Liberia, was arrested and brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Mugabe said, 'There now, you see? That is why I will never give up power!"

Mandela turned his palms toward the ceiling. "What sort of man says something like that?"

Alfre then asked what should be done. And again Mandela answered without answering.

He complimented his successor, South African President Thabo Mbeke, for working to "prevent violence between Zimbabwe and South Africa", but then he said that Mbeke "spends too much time running to Harare. And that does not look good."

The question that hung in the air, which Alfre did not have to ask, was, "Are you going to make a public statement?" And, of course, the very next night, he did.

The moment he chose was during his magnificent, tented, 90th Birthday Dinner in Hyde Park. In language both strong and maddeningly gentle, he called the situation, "A tragic failure of leadership". Without mentioning names, or referencing violence, or even the word Democracy.

Why so restrained? When he was leaving the office of the presidency of South Africa, Nelson Mandela made promises. Among them, he promised to, like (most) American presidents, stay above politics, refrain from criticizing one side or the other, and pursue his charitable work, which he has done, with, mainly, excellent results. The point is, he promised. But, revered as he is, Mandela knew he could not stay above this fray. Nor did he want to. After all, here he was in Britain, the historic oppressor of non-white people in every corner of the globe, hearing -- in tones of sanctimonious moral outrage -- from both the right and the left, 'why hasn't Mandela said something!?'

But if he was going to finesse his promise he needed to pick the right moment. After all, South African politics is, news flash, very complicated. In America, Britain and Europe no one has any trouble understanding the idea that "A week is a long time in politics." But we still don't think this applies to ... Africa!??! Gee, I wonder what that's about.

Anyway, last Wednesday, President Mandela picked his moment, and as usual, his words resounded.

He called the situation "A tragic failure of leadership." For once the word 'tragic' was entirely appropriate, since a tragic figure is, by definition, one who knows that he is creating his own ruin. That's Mugabe; the revolutionary hero, reduced by his demons to isolated, mad despot.

At the age of 90, having thought about it for longer than sloppier thinkers considered necessary, Mandela made a deceptively simple, almost bland, statement, which has exerted great influence. The 'leadership' he was referring to wasn't just Mugabe. It was the African Union, (which, by pure coincidence I suppose, met the very next week in Egypt). Result: Mugabe's legitimacy is (finally) under unified and consistent attack from those who might have continued to dither for months, and the Mugabe end-game is in a tight, urgent spiral. It won't be long.

Speaking of Zimbabwe, I'll never forget, in 1987 when we were shooting 'Mandela', the sensation of being the only white person walking the streets, and feeling like, "Whoa, I'm really not in Kansas anymore." And to add to the jittery elation, my wife's just up the road playing Winnie Mandela, who, for a while was as sainted as her husband. But she succumbed to anger, loneliness, unwise choice of friends, not to mention alcohol. She's better now, and still a major political leader in South Africa. But when he got out, and started his march toward the presidency, she'd been alone for decades, married to someone with such an astonishingly complete sense of his own destiny, that he walked out of 27 years in prison like a person who'd had to do jury duty for a week and was eager to get back to work. How does a woman who'd spent all those years without him, adjust to being the Great Man's wife. The dissolution of their marriage might also, appropriately, be called tragic.

Anyway, Alfre was playing Winnie, Danny Glover was Mandela -- doing his best, but not quite equal to the task(who is?) - and Alfre's work in that film -- playing that angry, gifted, unfairly marginalized woman, was brilliant.

Zimbabwe was a hopeful place then. Existing investment was sticking around, and new money was coming in. We weren't the only movie shooting there. A lot of the 'Rhodies' aka. whites, were staying put. There was a feeling of possibility and optimism. It took fifteen years for Mugabe to completely lose the plot, kick out the remaining white farmers, give away their land to his thugs, and start killing anyone brave enough to oppose him. He must know, even if he dies without admitting it, that there's a room in hell waiting for him.

Is there only one Mandela?

PS. A word about the 90th Birthday dinner. A certain mega celebrity from the United States -- and his betrothed -- hosted, and by and large, they did a lovely job. But, during the dinner, specifically during the live auction -- which was the central fundraising component of the dinner - this particular performer must have felt he wasn't getting enough attention, and so, either by design or impulse, he suddenly jumped up, grabbed the microphone from the super-competent professional and, as a 'joke', began to impersonate an American cattle auctioneer. "How delightful!" the guests (may have) thought, "Soon he'll let our adoring laughter wash over him, and.. hand.. the.. microphone back to the real auctioneer..." but he didn't. He kept up the rapid-fire gibberish, and the laughs quickly began to subside, but even that didn't stop him. Nor did an heroic attempt by a -- not insignificant -- British movie star to -- playfully -- return the mic to the professional. He was going to sell the thing himself, no matter what. Well, a lot of arms that would have been in the air got folded across wealthy chests and stayed there until he sat back down. Most unfortunate, considering that, if left to the professionals, the item -- a one of a kind portrait of Mandela -- would have fetched over a million pounds. Instead it earned less than half that. There's an art to auctioneering. Anyone planning a charitable live auction should hire someone who knows the job -- and duct tape the microphone to his or her hand!

One wanted to say to the celebrity in question, "Dude, the only person more rich & famous than you in England at the moment is the f****ng Queen! Take a page from her book; just wave!!"
And speaking of ego needs; Bill Clinton -- also in attendance (with Chelsea) -- kept his admirably in check and gave a moving, articulate, heartfelt, and relatively brief, tribute to Mandela that brought tears, and reminded, after the previous 12 months of making us forget, what a gifted speaker he can be.

We wouldn't have missed any of it for the world.