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Recalling Nelson Mandela's 'Funny And Humble' Side


We end our program today with another tribute to anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela. He died last Thursday, and South Africa is preparing for his memorial tomorrow. Many Americans learned about Mandela on screen through the movies that dramatized his life. Here's a clip of Danny Glover and Alfre Woodard in the 1987 film, "Mandela."


ALFRE WOODARD: (As Winnie Mandela) Baba Mandela, when I see you walking about in this country, my joy overflows and my faith is made real enough to touch.

HEADLEE: But for these actors, the struggle didn't end on screen. They formed Artists for Free South Africa to add their voices to push for continued sanctions against South Africa. The organization is now known as Artists for a New South Africa. And its executive director Sharon Gelman joins us now to talk about how the group's been involved in that nation's evolution. Welcome to the program.

SHARON GELMAN: Thank you so much.

HEADLEE: You know, artists aren't always the best spokespeople for a movement. I mean, oftentime, getting a celebrity involved in something can bring its own problems, right? Why did the collaboration between big-name artists actually work in the case of apartheid?

GELMAN: Well, I think I can speak best to the people in my organization. And I think what makes them effective is that all of them were activists before they were famous or those things sort of occurred at the same time. So it was - these are people who have a deep commitment to humanity. They also have political interests and knowledge. They're highly informed. If they don't know information about something, they want to learn about it. So they're going to read, and they ask for talking points.

So I think when a celebrity, just like anyone else, becomes an effective spokesperson, it's when they put work into understanding the issue. And also when they know what they don't know. So in our case, we spend a lot of time talking to South Africans on the front lines, people who have long history. And we ask them - we ask for a lot of information. We ask them to guide us.

HEADLEE: In fact, Alfre Woodard herself describes some very powerful, emotional moments touring the prison where Nelson Mandela was held for a long time. And talking about how his expectations of her made her want to do more. What other sort of personal recollections do some of the members of your group have about their interaction with Mandela?

GELMAN: Well, I'll speak to the first time we all met Mandela - or at least, I should say many of us - when he was released from prison and came on his first trip to the United States. I believe that was June of 1990. And in Los Angeles at the dinner, Alfre was tapped to introduce Mandela. Danny introduced Alfre, Alfre introduced Nelson Mandela. And she - Alfre is an incredible speaker, and she is an incredible writer - very much sort of a prose poet. And she's giving this really moving talk about - oh, Nelson Mandela, you know, my heart bursts to be with you. And I wish I was the feet of 10,000 children toyi-toying and the voice of a million woman ululating, but I'm just one woman. You know, I'm paraphrasing here. And then she looks out at him and he looked so tired and so drawn. And we were all nervous that here's this man who's, you know, survived 27 years in prison and we were exhausting him.

The United States was simply exhausting him. So Alfre interrupts her speech and she starts saying, Tata, you look so tired. Is anyone letting you get enough rest? How long are you going to be in town? Do you have time to come to my house for dinner? I make the best chicken. And for years, I heard from people who had met with him saying, oh my God, he said that of all the introductions he's ever had, that Alfre's moved him so much because she related to him as a person not as an icon. So I think that would embody what many of us experienced. And then skip forward to 1994, we help the White House to plan the guest list for the first official state dinner with Nelson Mandela being president. And Alfre is walking through the receiving line and, you know, she's down the line a ways.

And Nelson Mandela looks out and he sees her, and he starts waving his arm and he says, Alfre, Alfre, do you remember me? It's me, Nelson. And she - you know, afterwards, she was like, yeah, I remember you kind of. So we've had many - many of us have had interactions like that where it's just so overwhelmingly evident that he is both funny and humble. The first time I met him in South Africa, we took a group to do voter education in January 1994 before the nation's first free elections. And it was Danny Glover and Angela Bassett and C.C.H. Pounder and Alexandra Paul and Delroy Lindo and other friends. And we were invited to have a private luncheon with Nelson Mandela and some of the ANC leadership.

So I immediately went to a friend of mine, a Zulu friend of mine named Ron Kananie (ph) who lives in LA and lived in LA at the time. And I got him to teach me how to greet Mr. Mandela appropriately in his language, which is Molo Tata, which means hello father. And you sort of nod your head. You bow your head a little bit. So I say this to him, and we've been going 24/7. I literally hadn't slept for almost a month, more than an hour or two, getting ready for this trip. I'd never been to Africa. It was so thrilling. We were all so excited. I walk in. I see Mr. Mandela. It's my turn to greet him, Molo Tata.

And he proceeds to answer me, he goes, ah, and talks in a torrent of Xhosa, of which those are the only two words I know. And I am so sleep deprived and so wowed to be standing with this man that I didn't bother to say to him, I have no idea what you're saying. I don't speak the language. And to this day, I really wonder - 'cause he went on and on and on - I wonder what he said to me. I have no idea.

HEADLEE: So how does the focus of your group - your group worked relatively closely with the things that he thought he needed. I mean, the things that he said - please support this cause, please support this. So now that he's passed, does that change the focus or the mission of your group?

GELMAN: Well, we've been very fortunate in that we have a coterie of advisors, really wise wonderful people - Desmond Tutu, Ahmed Kathrada, Albie Sachs, Barabra Hogan. You know, although Mandela is the central leader, there are people around him who really also embody his values and his beliefs. I wouldn't say everyone who's ever been around him incorporates those, but these folks that we work with are just his moral equals. And so they continue to guide us. And also, ANSA is in - we're in our closing phase.

We've been planning to make next year our final year because we feel like we've accomplished much of what we set out to do. And our work now is shifting into preserving the legacy of the people that we've come to know and our own perspective on it. So we're hoping to add our voices to the living history of Mr. Mandela and the movement that's surrounded him, and use what we've gone through, what we've experienced to articulate these things through the arts and through literature. That's where we're headed now.

HEADLEE: Sharon Gelman is the executive director of Artists for a New South Africa. She joined us from Cambridge, Maryland. Thank you so much, Sharon.

GELMAN: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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