01/09/2014 04:07 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2014

'I Shook Hands With Mandela and de Klerk Today'

It is July 4, 1993 and I want to set down what happened today so I don't forget it. I went to the luncheon given for the President of the ANC and the President of South Africa by the City of Philadelphia at the Convention Center. There were perhaps 1500 people in the great hall, some I knew but there were many black families, people stylishly dressed and exuberant but not known to me from my moving around in Philadelphia. And as always, I noted that whites sat with whites and blacks sat with blacks. Some blacks and whites shook hands and greeted each other as if they knew each other professionally and through work but not socially. This is integration in America in the 1990s. An announcement that the two South Africans were arriving brought us all to our feet, and they came through a path between tables to the accompaniment of a march, I don't remember its name, but ironically it's one that both must have known the Afrikaans words to because it is one of the songs of the University of Witwatersrand, where Mandela went, in the city where de Klerk grew up:

Witwatersrand hoerah

 Welkom die Tuks,

 Welkom hul na ons land

 Kom neem hul vriendelik aan die hand, Tuks!

It's about welcoming your rival in a friendly way, by the hand, to your university.

We all sat again and the first of the addresses by Mayor Rendell and other dignitaries were made while we ate our salad. After the Mayor regained his seat, he turned to me. "Would you like to meet Nelson Mandela?" (I had told him of my great wish to talk with them, being a South African who had spent 35 years in America and 32 of those in Philadelphia). I followed quickly before the crowd got there, to the table where Mandela sat with some of my friends, Martin Meyerson and Leon Higgenbotham.

Ed Rendell introduced me, Martin Meyerson said I was a South African. Nelson Mandela grasped my hand warmly and shook it and held it while we talked. And I talked about having lived 32 years in Philadelphia and felt myself to be an African and an American, and how I had left South Africa because, as an architect and planner, I did not want to literally build apartheid, but that I was concerned about apartheid in America and not building it here either and that I felt that South Africa had a great deal now to teach America and that people here did not realize the extent of apartheid in the U.S. and how it was engendered. Here he appeared to agree and to say he had heard that and he understood. I said South Africa could be a moral lesson and beacon for America, if things went right for South Africa, and he was warmly receptive but, as I was starting to say that I had been at Wits and my family had been in Africa for three generations, so everyone descended upon him. Martin Meyerson said to him "She is an important architect," Leon Higgenbotham said "Denise has taught me a great deal," I said I was praying for him and that I had not wanted to return to South Africa unless I could help to build a post-apartheid society. And then other people dragged him away.

I left, not trying to be any more assertive than I had already been; the contact with him was as warm as it could be and as friendly, and he heard what I said and I could see he had thought in similar directions himself.

I turned round and, as no one offered to introduce me to de Klerk, I walked over to him and introduced myself. He also held my hand very warmly. and I told him the same things and said again I felt Americans didn't realize the extent of apartheid here and that there was a form of self-protective self congratulation going on which made them not really see the problems as they were. I told him that when people asked what I thought of the changes in South Africa I said that I had a dream that President de Klerk came to America and saw that, with one person one vote, you could still have apartheid. And he said immediately, "Yes, and that's what we don't want and we're looking for a system that will avoid that." And when I said that I thought South Africa could be a moral force for strength for America, it could be that way round, he too seemed to have heard that and to be pleased and interested to hear my reactions to having lived here. And this was without bitterness about America but with great interest and receptivity. When I said, as I said to Mandela, I felt myself an African and an American, he said, "I feel myself to be an African too." I said, "We pray for you and, this is a message from Philadelphia, you're going to have to hold hands and fight," and he said "That's what we are doing, and I want to remember that because it's a good way to put it." Then he went on to say the National Party will be the major multiracial party of South Africa and he believed they would get the most African votes of all the parties, "And that's what I want. I want to be a head of that kind of a party." He said that in reference to calling himself an African and he was smiling and warm all the while as he spoke. Then again, others came and took him away.

I went back to my seat feeling teary and joyful and sad and nostalgic. I told them both I had a great nostalgia for South Africa. So there it was, and back at my seat I began talking with a nice waspy lady on my right about the moral lesson of South Africa -- the fact that de Klerk had managed to move the center of whites of South Africa, the ones who have the power, toward the left, and that Clinton was trying without success to do it in America, and that at this point South Africa had something to teach America. And she said "Well, I don't necessarily agree with you, but I want to think about what you've said." When I tried to show her what I meant in various ways, each time she said "I'm not sure I agree with you, but I want to think about it." Then I said the rhetoric of democracy allows white Americans not to think about problems here, for example, about the need to move over and to pay more taxes to help the people who don't have. And again she said, "I've heard you. I don't necessarily agree with you, and I want to think about what you've said." But the woman next to her on the other side was smiling and nodding and Constance Clayton (our Superintendent of Schools) on my left said, "It's certain if we are to save our schools we're going to have to have some form of regional sharing, there is no other way," and of course that is exactly what those who have power in America won't do, but they call it grassroots democracy.


I wrote this the evening of my meeting in 1993, but reread it when Mandela died. De Klerk's calling himself an "African" was as astonishing as, say, Nixon's calling himself a Liberal Democrat. And of course his naïve dream of heading a new multi-racial party in South Africa did not pan out. The country is still enmeshed in the difficulties of the change, but TV newscasts around the death of Mandela seem to portray a mixing of groups more than we have here, where attempts now increase to erode "one man one vote."