Since the news of Mandela’s death this story from my life has kept looping through my mind. I’ve hesitated to write this post because, to be honest, the story to some extent makes Mandela’s death “all about me.” But since it keeps looping I feel like maybe there’s something here that should be told.
It was 1985 and apartheid still reigned in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was in prison and Winnie Mandela — prior to revelations of wrongdoing — was his spokesperson in the outside world. She was fierce, outspoken and one of our heroes. Mandela himself was already becoming the stuff of legends and we so wanted him to be freed.
I was a fairly newly (ish) minted attorney. I’d been volunteering with a nonprofit legal outfit called Business and Professional People for the Public Interest (BPI). One of the attorneys there was also deeply involved in the Free South Africa Movement. They had worked out a plan that involved some people being arrested for protesting at the South African consulate and a big trial parading some well-known witnesses through in an attempt to (a) establish the necessity defense in connection with this cause and, more important (b) create a spotlight that would make people aware of the terrible conditions in South Africa to help build pressure on the U.S. government for a boycott. He invited me to be on the defense team. Articles about the trial can be seen here and here.
During voir dire it shocked me to hear juror after juror reveal that they didn’t read newspapers or watch the news and knew nothing about what was going on in South Africa. My part was really small but I felt so honored to play a role in the week-long trial, at the end of which the necessity defense had been accepted, the cause had resulted in lots of media attention and the defendants were acquitted. The following year the U.S. finally passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act.
The greatest moment of all for me came when I went out the next week to join the protesters marching outside the consulate and met some of the jurors on the protest line. They said they’d been so moved by what they heard that they felt they had to join the protest! It taught me so much about the compassion of the human heart — it’s a big part of my faith that we can bring peace to the world.
And all that fire and compassion and love was lit by Nelson Mandela. RIP