12/10/2013 02:42 pm ET Updated Feb 09, 2014

Memories of Nelson Mandela From 1977

Nelson Mandela and William B. Gould IV

Nelson Mandela's inauguration on May 10, 1994, is nearly 20 years ago. That day, in language reminiscent of Lincoln, he said, "The time for the healing of wounds has come."

The new president praised his apartheid-era predecessor, F.W. De Klerk -- then a Second Deputy President -- and also brought into government Inkatha rival Gatsha Butelezi as well. The exhaust fumes of the low-flying nine Mirage South African Air Force jets provided the colors of the new flag- -- black, green and yellow associated with the liberation movement -- and the red, white and blue contained in all white settler flags.

My mind that day flashed back to Mandela's imprisonment in the 1960's and the shocked reaction of South Africans, black and white, that I had brought his writings with me when I first visited South Africa in 1977. All of his work was banned and the very mention of his name was forbidden. When I arrived in Cape Town that year, I vividly recall looking across the bay at Robben Island, where Mr. Mandela was imprisoned, and discussing him with local civil rights proponents. But the closest I came to him then was a meeting with Winnie Mandela in the "wild-west" rural town of Brandfort where she had been placed by the government, 250 miles from Johannesburg. As we spoke in her Volkswagon, ear-phoned security police pulled up behind us.

This was the era of a new Black Consciousness movement -- its leader, Steve Biko, was murdered while I was there. The birth of a new trade union movement was taking place simultaneously, about to emerge as an institution whose role would be critical in the turbulent '80s. My first meeting with the unions in 1977 had taken place with Anglican monks at the Community of the Resurrection, made well known by Father Trevor Huddleston in his Naught for your Comfort.

I had first met President Mandela before his Inauguration due to a connection with Cyril Ramaphosa, who was at that time a trade union leader in South Africa and is now the deputy president of the African National Congress. Ramaphosa had visited Stanford in 1982 and lunched with us at our home. We stayed in touch, and it was Ramaphosa who arranged for me to not only observe the constitutional negotiations but also to attend the first African National Congress ("ANC") conference in what was about to become the post-apartheid era in 1991, where my initial encounter with Mr. Mandela took place. (This was only a year after his release from prison.) Although it was the briefest exchange with others present, I recall the warmth in his greeting and welcome to me and others, his charismatic and relaxed manner.

The second meeting was more substantive, in Aug. 1992, where I had about 10 minutes with him alone -- again a privilege arranged directly by Ramaphosa. Somehow his initial greeting to me sticks out in my mind more than our subsequent conversation that day about the changes taking place in South Africa and the difficulties of transition: "How do you call yourself?" he said to me when we first met, just as one would say literally in French. I have never been greeted by anyone before or since, with these words -- words which struck me as so courtly, expressed by this older gentleman (he was then younger than I am now) with whom I was made to feel at ease.

Mr. Mandela spoke that day of the perils which he and the ANC confronted in transition, the destabilizing violence engaged in by rival Zulu factions in Kwazulu (Inkatha's base), which appeared to be government-inspired and designed to disrupt the hoped for orderly transition. When the meeting concluded, we posed for a photo, which remains prominently on my office wall.

Subsequently, Mr. Ramaphosa came again to Stanford and spoke at the Law School. He then arranged for the soon-to-be President Mandela to speak at the same venue, a date which was tragically cancelled five or six days before the event was to take place because of a recurrence of the Kwazulu difficulties.

A decade ago, I was able to return to South Africa on my 10th visit there and to meet so many who were now in government and other official positions, those who had been literally on the run at the time of my first visit to that great country in 1977. The stage had been set by both the struggles throughout the 20th century, but, most important, by the note of unity, reconciliation and resolve that he struck that Inauguration day in 1994. It heralded not only a necessarily balanced discipline but also, perhaps ominously, translated into deferred expectations that could be sustained only by a man of Mandela's stature.

My meetings and contact with him and my reading about him these many years, convince me that his life constitutes the greatest inspiration for all mankind of which I am aware in my lifetime. Like the world, I mourn his death and join the world leaders who celebrate his life and ideals.