Pioneer Valley residents recall personal encounters with Nelson Mandela (with Storify)

Last modified: Sunday, December 08, 2013

Pioneer Valley residents who had met revered South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela described their encounters as “magical,” “humbling” and a continued source of inspiration.

They joined the hundreds of millions of people around the globe Friday who mourned the death of Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years before leading his country out of white minority rule.

Peace activist Frances Crowe of Northampton recalls the taxi ride she took to an apartment on the Upper East side of Manhattan in 1990, just a few months after Mandela had been released from prison.

Crowe — who at 94 is a year younger than Mandela was when he died Thursday at his home in Johannesburg — had been invited to meet him along with other members of the American Friends Service Committee who had been active in anti-apartheid support work in the U.S.

“When I got into the taxi, the driver told me the whole city was joyfully celebrating his release,” Crowe said. “When I got to the apartment, there were about 50 of us in the room. He shook hands with every one of us.”

Crowe remembers Mandela, who served as his country’s first black president, as “kind of magical” in person.

“He was humble,” she added, “but also with a sense of nobility, as someone who was on the right path.”

After learning online about his death Thursday night, Crowe said she looked up the speech Mandela made at his trial in 1964 for his activities in the military wing of the African National Congress, Spear of the Nation. In it, he cited poverty and “lack of human dignity” for black South Africans as reasons for the fight against the white minority government.

Reading it reminded Crowe of why she continues to work on peace and social justice issues. “The South Africans have the same problems we have here,” she said. “The rich and the poor.”

Stephen Clingman, a longtime professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, spent a few hours with Mandela in December 1991. At the time, Clingman was researching a book about Bram Fischer, a white attorney and anti-apartheid activist who had defended Mandela at his trial.

A native South African, Clingman, 59, had grown up during the years when Mandela was banned by the government, meaning that nothing the jailed African National Congress leader had said or written could be quoted in the press or used for publication.

Clingman, who lives in Amherst, recalls meeting Mandela in someone’s home in a Johannesburg suburb and setting up a “battered tape recorder” to capture their conversation.

“He was an amazing presence,” Clingman said. “He had this immediate authority and an air of command. But he also listened to questions and reflected thoughtfully.”

At the time, Mandela was involved in negotiations with the government about the transfer of power to a non-racial system. “It was a very violent, exhausting time,” Clingman said. “He was taking a few days off from those negotiations when we met.”

Mandela won election as president in 1994 in South Africa’s first all-race elections — also the first election where Clingman said he and his wife felt comfortable casting votes. (They did so at the South African Embassy in Washington.)

Clingman said news of Mandela’s passing Thursday sparked mixed emotions.

“For people like myself there is quite profound grief,” he said. “But the other feeling is one of gratitude for everything he was and everything he meant.

“Our interview is never very far from my mind,” he added. “I didn’t take any selfies with him — this was before our digital technology. But it’s in my memory.”

Greenfield resident Eveline MacDougall and her African musical group Amandla performed at a celebration on the Esplanade in Boston for Mandela in 1990, a few months after he had been released from prison.

The group, founded in 1988, had been asked to fill in when Peter, Paul and Mary could not join the celebrity bill that also included the likes of Jackson Browne and Paul Simon, she said.

After several hours of waiting to go onstage, MacDougall said she glimpsed Mandela and his wife Winnie in the distance, getting into a limousine.

“My heart sank,” she said. “I said, ‘Quick! He’s leaving. At least we can sing Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika,” now South Africa’s national anthem. The group obliged and began singing.

To their astonishment, the limousine stopped and Mandela “jumped out and came toward us with this glowing face,” MacDougall recalled. “He stood with us singing with his fist in the air. I felt as though he turned to each one of us and made eye contact.”

Saxophonist Charles Neville of Huntington performed at another megaconcert that year for Mandela at Wembley Stadium in London. He remembers the South African leader coming backstage to thank the artists who had traveled from around the world to help celebrate his release.

“We had a brief handshake,” Neville said. “He seemed to have this happy glow about him. I remember thinking it was great that he got to spend so many years free after so many years locked up.”

Florence resident Lilly Lombard never met Mandela in person. But she was in South Africa on the day in 1990 that he was released from prison. Lombard, who had just graduated from Georgetown University, was volunteering as a teacher at a school in one of South Africa’s rural, black homelands.

“We all huddled around this one little black-and-white TV,” she said. “We watched him being released and making speeches.”

Lombard, 46, said that year in South Africa was “a time of great awakening” for the country, when people began to believe that the apartheid system could be defeated.

It was also a time of awakening for her. “It was my initiation into what became a life of activism,” said Lombard, who is the founder of Grow Food Northampton and active in efforts to reduce the region’s use of fossil fuels. She also has been a member of Amandla for the past three years.

Riché Barnes, an assistant professor of anthropology at Smith College, is another who said Mandela inspired her life and career choices.

Barnes was a high school junior in Atlanta when Mandela was released from prison. She vividly remembers going to see a play about children in a black South African township with her high school classmates — an experience she said inspired her to study anthropology.

“So much of that rushed back at me” on Thursday, said Barnes, 39, who teaches Afro-American studies at Smith.

“Learning about the apartheid system and the release of Nelson Mandela was a really big part of my coming of age,” she added. “It’s amazing how much of that has stuck with me and is just sitting on my spirit now that he is gone.”


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