• Memories of Mandela: Part II

    By Marge Ann Jameson

    The last decade of the 20th century was a time of upheaval all over the world. Refugees, both economic and political, flowed across borders and huge changes took place in hitherto “stable” regions. Genocide was a real event in such places as Iraq, Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina. An accord reached in Paris returned 370,000 Cambodian refugees to their homeland, a small part of 3 million displaced by conflict in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Soviet Union was collapsing and the apartheid government in South Africa was pressured to end its rule.

    In Geneva, Mrs. Sadako Ogata took office at the beginning of the decade as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – the first woman to hold the office and the first Japanese. In Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela was freed from prison after 27 years behind bars.

    Mrs. Ogata writes in a scholarly text, The Turbulent Decade: Confronting the Refugee Crises of the 1990s (2005, W. W. Norton & Co, New York, NY) that she “learned to look at the UN from two perspectives: the theater of the much-exposed conference diplomacy,  by which the delegates met to  discuss common directions; and the operational activities that impacted on the real world of security and poverty.”

    Mrs. Ogata and Nelson Mandela were part of the first perspective. Bob Pacelli was part of the second perspective. His job was to film the meetings and later the actual home-going of hundreds of thousands of refugees. He had already flown in and out of Johannesburg with planeloads of refugees, hand-carrying paperwork to get them into South Africa. He had been to Tanzania with refugee flights. He had filed miles and miles of film footage. He had been approached by mothers in Soweto who showed him 15 or 20 year old pictures of their missing children, hoping he would know where they were.

    Soon after he was released from prison, Nelson Mandela went to Geneva to talk with Mrs. Ogata about the repatriation of thousands of South African political exiles who were spread across three other countries. Pacelli was there to film the meetings. As unobtrusive as a man over six feet tall with a shock of black curly hair could be, he was privy to the meetings and kept the camera rolling.

    Belying his one-time occupation as a boxer, Mandela appeared to Pacelli to be “small, and elegant.”

    “He walked in with four of the biggest white guys [to protect him] you’ve ever seen and what struck me is that ‘this guy is really small,’” said Pacelli. [Son of a would-be tribal chief, Mandela had been adopted by a Thembu chief and raised to assume high office, probably as a counselor to a chief. He had studied to be a civil clerk.]

    “He wore an impeccable suit,” said Pacelli. “He was really kind of shy. Think about it. He’d been in prison for 27 years.”

    He had what has been described as a cross cultural embrace, a fatherly smile, and an attitude of humility.

    “This guy never uttered a word against the government. He was focused on the repatriation, and only wanted to think about the future,” said Pacelli. The enemies, said Mandela, are the enemies of peace and justice. He was talking, Pacelli said, not just about the future of the South African refugees. He was talking about the future of humanity.

    “The other ANC wanted money…they had a revenge list a mile long. Nelson wanted none of that. He was totally clear. He was totally focused on the reuniting of the country.”

    Mrs. Ogata, in 1995, was to say, “Two years ago, Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk [who also received the Nobel Prize for Peace] received here the Liberty Medal for their role in creating a non-racial and democratic South Africa. The return of the South African exiles was a critical element in the process of national reconciliation. We are proud to have played a role by bringing them back home. The transformation of South Africa has been an uplifting and encouraging event, sending a positive signal to other countries in southern Africa.”

    “In the darkest of times if you provide even a pinhole of light people will turn to it,” said Pacelli, “And the reflection off their faces will make the light grow brighter until it shines all over world … like the Christmas star.”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on December 20, 2013

    Topics: Front PG News


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