It was early one evening when I was leaving work, and I walked out through the turnstiles at the entrance to the foyer of the South African Broadcasting Corporation. Suddenly, I became aware of a buzz of electricity in the space, and my eyes were drawn to a phalanx of men, with one, tall, striking figure in the center. I had heard of charisma but never experienced it so forcefully before. He was just walking, swiftly, and looking straight ahead, but his magnetism was palpable. It was Nelson Mandela. Once he had passed through the entrance en route to the studios, the foyer felt bereft, flat, colorless. I thought of this moment when I learned of his death. It is not too much to say that a light has gone out in the world with his passing.
The other time I was in Mandela’s presence was at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg, renowned for having been a non-racial theatre at the height of apartheid. The occasion was the 1993 awards ceremony for the prestigious CNA literary prize. As each winner in each category was announced, Mandela, dressed in one of his signature silk, batik, Madiba shirts, stood up to engage them in an intimate and private conversation. No surprise, he won the major award for his autobiography Long Road to Freedom that year, but his gracious warmth to all the nominees clearly made every one of them feel singular.