Although I had experience in Africa, and was thus allowed a space in the State Department’s flag lobby when Nelson Mandela was quickly ushered in, under heavy security for a meeting with the Secretary of State, I saw but did not meet him.
But, I had come to some grief in 1972, when Mandela was still in prison, for defending him.
The government of South Africa convened a conference on drug abuse in Capetown in November 1972. I was among the better known “experts” on drug abuse at the time, and had authored a chapter on the international aspects of the problem in a well-received book Addiction.
Because of the official US position on apartheid, the US did not want to send a high-ranking official from State, Justice or Treasury. However, I had been invited as a delegate of the International Council on Alcoholism and the Addictions, based in Switzerland.
Fine, an official of the US Embassy said; the US needed to be seen at a first-ever conference at which there would be representatives of the three South African populations: white (heavily Dutch), black and colored (mixed). But, immediately upon my arrival, the Ambassador wanted to know what, if anything, I would say about apartheid and especially about Mandela. I was urged to confine my remarks to drugs.
After a week of being shown such positives as the hospital where Dr Barnard conducted the first heart transplant, and learning that black and colored doctors received the same training there as whites, and the impressive wine industry, I had also met with black and colored doctors, separately, and learned about the horrors of the shabeens, bars in shacks where men and boys succumbed to home brew and especially a variety of marijuana much more powerful than that consumed in the USA.
While driving around the Capetown area, I also saw the pervasive poverty, and the demarcation between white, black and colored housing areas.
I did not want to offend my hosts, who had staged an elaborate birthday party for me at the Cape, I also knew that the final press conference at the Heerengrascht hotel would be followed by a press conference. Knowing that the black and colored delegates were in that landmark hotel for the first time, and that I was the first American many had met, I knew I had to address apartheid, drawing on experiences as a reporter covering the civil rights movement in the USA.
An Embassy official stood off to one side as I told the delegates that their racial problems could not be resolved by the US or European powers, but had to come internally. More, the majority African population had to find a democratic way of gaining political power, to partake in the vibrant South African economy without destroying it.
Looking directly at my white hosts, I concluded by saying, “You must take the first two steps. Abolish your apartheid laws. Free Nelson Mandela.” The Africans of color cheered. The press amplified my remarks.
Back in Washington, people only remembered that final comment.