A notation in history - Brown reflects on Mandela, trip for funeral
Bob Brown knew Nelson Mandela as well as anyone outside his family and inner circle, meeting with Mandela at a South African prison more than 25 years ago when few outsiders were allowed access.
But during his trip to South Africa last week for the funeral services of the 95-year-old statesman who went from prisoner to president, Brown still was amazed at what he learned about his relationship with a man who became an admired friend.
As Brown met with people in South Africa whom he had befriended before and after Mandela’s release from prison, he visited the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg.
Brown, a High Point native and longtime businessman and civic leader, said Mandela kept extensive notes each day while imprisoned during 27 years under the racially divided system of apartheid, which kept whites in South Africa brutally in control over blacks during most of the 20th century.
In 1987, as he was part of a group of Americans pressuring for Mandela’s release, Brown said he became the first person outside of Mandela’s inner circle to be allowed to meet with Mandela in prison.
“Nobody had done that, except his immediate family,” he told The High Point Enterprise in an interview Thursday at his home.
At the foundation archives, Brown looked at the journal entry from May 8, 1987, the day he met with Mandela in the room of Pollsmoor Prison in Capetown under the gaze of a single guard. There, in Mandela’s handwriting in a notebook, was a detailed notation about the meeting between Mandela and Brown.
“I was so shocked that I didn’t know what to do. He wrote that he met with Bob Brown for 80 minutes, I think he had it underlined in that place,” Brown said.
What amazes Brown, as he reflects on his prison conversation with Mandela, is that even then Mandela was thinking about a reconciliation between blacks and whites in South Africa.
“Mr. Mandela had the intelligence and tenacity to do that as a gifted human being,” Brown said during the interview following his 18-hour flight home.
Brown isn’t surprised that Mandela, once released from prison, became a leader who didn’t seek retribution against white South Africans, but sought to bring blacks and whites together for the good of his nation.
“He talked with me in prison about the good in white people, he talked about getting white people and black people to form alliances to take South Africa forward,” Brown said. “Here’s a man whose family had been decimated by the whites in charge of the government, who’d had friends killed, all kinds of retributions against him and black people. A country where black people couldn’t go from one place to another without having a pass. And if you didn’t have it, they’d put you in jail. In spite of all of this, all the killings taking place, he was talking with me about bringing people together.”
The tie-in to Martin Luther King Jr.
Brown, who served as a special assistant in the administration of President Richard Nixon during the 1970s, had the opportunity to meet Mandela because of his longtime friendship with Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
In the mid-1980s, as South Africa and apartheid boiled over as a pressing debate in America, King approached Brown about arranging a trip to South Africa so she could personally seek Mandela’s release from prison.
Brown was part of the delegation that went with King to South Africa in 1986. Indeed, Brown said he ended up presenting a letter from King on Mandela’s behalf to the presidential office of the then white-controlled government. In an astounding irony, less than 10 years later Brown would return to the same presidential office as a visitor to South Africa, only then to greet Mandela as the elected leader of the nation.
During the trip in 1986, King also wanted to meet with relatives of Mandela, which allowed Brown to get to know them as well. Brown offered his services on behalf of Mandela and his family.
From there Brown stepped up his involvement, which led a year later to his meeting with Mandela in prison. Brown was part of a movement across the world that pressured the South African government to release Mandela in 1990, which then led to the end of apartheid when Mandela became the first black president after the nation’s first multiracial election in 1994.
Amazement at how history played out
While in South Africa last week, Brown met with members of Mandela’s family during the services to mark Mandela’s passing.
“They are like family to me,” said Brown, who more than 20 years ago helped arrange for members of Mandela’s family to study in the United States.
Now 78 years old, Brown marvels not only that he had the chance to befriend Mandela but witness history play out that he could have never imagined when he arranged for his first delegation to visit South Africa 27 years ago.
When Brown accompanied King with the group in 1986, he never thought that one day he would attend an internationally recognized funeral service for Mandela as the retired elected president of South Africa.
“I couldn’t even dream that back then,” Brown said.
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High Point businessman Bob Brown, chairman of B&C Associates, has been involved with a campaign to donate millions of books to South African schools so that poor children have access to quality books in the classroom. The campaign, through the International BookSmart Foundation, began when South African leader Nelson Mandela was in prison and continued after the racial system of apartheid ended following Mandela’s release more than 20 years ago. The donations provide books to schools where they cost too much. For more information check the website www.sabooksmart.org or call 884-1555.