Mandela Becomes President: The Mayor's View


It was a tremendous thrill and honor for me to attend the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela of South Africa. I felt that I carried the good wishes of the entire city of Baltimore.

I arrived at Andrews Air Force Base around 4 p.m. on May 9. The delegation was to be divided into two planes. The first plane would accompany first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. I was selected to be in Air Force Two with the vice president and Mrs. Gore.

I was curious about every detail of the plane. Without giving away any security information, I can give a general description of this aircraft. It is a Boeing 707 that is divided into several sections: an area for the Secret Service; an "apartment" for the vice president and his wife; a lounge for briefings; an office-like area for staff; and then a section for about 30 passengers in business-class-size seats. Finally, there is an area for stewards to prepare meals. One thing I learned was that taxpayers' money is not being wasted on extravagant meals; the food was the least memorable part of the entire trip.

There was a card on the window next to my seat that had the official seal of the vice president of the United States. It read, "Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Welcome aboard Air Force Two." The person assigned to sit next to me was Congresswoman Maxine Waters from Los Angeles.

I learned from her very quickly that a number of the members of our delegation had been on these types of trips before, because they were very well prepared. Less than an hour after we took off, people who I had seen in business suits were now in jogging clothes because they knew that they had to be as relaxed as possible in order to be fresh at the end of a 17-hour flight. Unfortunately, the best that I could do to relax was to take off my tie and sport coat.

Each of us was given a briefing book that contained our itinerary, biographies of delegation members and officials in South Africa, and general background information on South Africa. About three hours after we took off, we met the vice president in the lounge for a briefing. Members of the delegation on Air Force Two besides myself and Congresswoman Waters were Rep. Kweisi Mfume; Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun; Rep. John Lewis; the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson; Gen. Colin L. Powell; Bill Lucy, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and John Tyson, senior adviser to the vice president. A few reporters were also on the plane, including Lerone Bennett from Ebony magazine.

When we arrived, the delegation lined up near a platform. The vice president made a speech about the intention of our country to work with South Africa in the future. As soon as the ceremony was over, the delegation members got into vans lined up behind the vice president's limousine and security vehicles for the ride into Johannesburg. With police escorts, this long caravan rode along the highways into the city.

The first thing that I did when I got into the van was ask the driver if the vehicle that I was in was what the locals refer to as "commbies." He said that it was. I asked that question because my brother, Alex, was riding in a "commby" April 4 when a tire blew out, the driver lost control, and Alex and two others were killed. The vehicle that we were in contained nine people, but the one that Alex was riding in had 15 adults and two babies. I could see how dangerous it was to ride with that many people in the vehicle.

As I rode along the highway, I tried to keep my mind focused on the scenery. Over the next few days I came to appreciate how beautiful a country South Africa is. I understand better now why Alex went there to teach, and I also understand the significance of the struggle for power in an area of such strategic significance. That country clearly has the potential to be a major player in the global economy. It will certainly be one of the most important economic engines for the entire continent of Africa.

We were taken to the Carlton, one of the nicer hotels in Johannesburg. For security reasons, we were taken through the basement, into the kitchen, then onto freight elevators. The vice president and the first lady were taken to separate areas.

We soon were taken to the Market Theater, one of the few places in South Africa where, during apartheid, whites and blacks could legally meet and enjoy the theater together. We met the rest of the delegation and were joined by members of the congressional Black Caucus, actor Danny Glover and other Americans who, over the years, have been involved with the struggle in South Africa. John Kani, a South African actor and playwright, spoke of the history of the Market Theater and talked about the arts community's struggle for freedom in South Africa.

Then Mr. Kani invited Maya Angelou, a member of the official U.S. delegation, to come onto the stage for brief comments. Rather than giving a speech, Ms. Angelou gave a rendition of two poems, one her own and one by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

After the artistic performances, the U.S. ambassador introduced Gore. The vice president gave a speech that focused on the historic ties between the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the African National Congress, as well as other historical relationships between the United States and South Africa. The cast sang the ANC anthem, "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika," or "God Bless Africa." Then, the vice president came back on stage and paid tribute to my brother, Alex. When he concluded his remarks, the cast continued to hum "God Bless Africa," and they were joined by the entire audience.

Thoughts about the beauty of the moment, the significance of the Mandela inauguration, the dreams that my brother had about contributing to this nation-building effort, all rushed through my mind. For a brief period I was overcome by emotion and cried tears of both sorrow and joy.

Leaving the Market Theater, I was immediately confronted with some of the difficult problems the new government must now face. First, we drove by one of the buildings that had been bombed the week before the voting. Because the site had not been cleared, it stood out as an ugly symbol of the extremism that President Mandela will have to guard against.

Second, I saw a small group of homeless people building a fire in an alley to keep warm. This is not an uncommon site in big cities around the world. However, seeing them triggered this troublesome thought: What if the black South Africans who have been forced to live in townships decide next week to move into the cities as a sign of their new freedom to move about their country?

President Mandela on several occasions has talked about the housing problems that must be addressed immediately. I came to appreciate why providing low-income housing is such a priority for his administration. I noted also that the city has a significant crime problem that is unrelated to political violence.

I only had about two hours of sleep because we had to get up very early to catch a bus to Pretoria, about a 45-minute drive from Johannesburg. The area where I sat to watch the inauguration reminded me somewhat of the side of the U.S. Capitol used for presidential inaugurations.

Although the area immediately in front of the stage could seat about 6,000 people, accommodations were made for thousands more who poured into the capital to see this historic event. Adjacent to the Union Buildings was a long, sloping hill that went down to a park. At the base of the park, some 100,000 people sat or walked about the lawn as they awaited the historic occasion.

Security for the event was unlike anything I had ever seen before. On the road to the Union Buildings, soldiers with semiautomatic weapons, spaced five yards apart, lined both sides of the road for a mile.

There was an extraordinary diversity of people there to celebrate the birth of this new multiracial democracy. The crowd reacted most enthusiasticly to an interesting collection of people long identified with supporting the party of Mandela, the ANC. These included Fidel Castro of Cuba, Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Julius Nyerere, the former president Tanzania.

There was a great deal of singing and a number of instrumental presentations. What interested me was that they alternated between Western and indigenous South African music.

President Mandela's speech was unifying and uplifting. After his comments, there were several "fly-bys" of different types of military aircraft. I will long remember the sight of four helicopters flying by carrying the flag of the new South Africa behind each helicopter. After they cleared the area, five military jets came by with colors streaming out of their tails. These colors blended together and formed the colors of the flag of the new South Africa. Everyone cheered wildly at the sight.

We went to a lunch for about 4,000 people under tents on the lawn of the Capitol. The food ranged from the exotic to the mundane. Listed among the choices were smoked crocodile, lamb ragout with fresh waterblommetjies (water flowers) and umnggusho, a Xhosa specialty. I chose to stick with rice and cheese.

While we were waiting for buses to pick us up, a group of young South Africans came by and started singing to the delegation. After singing several South African songs, one of the students said to Congressman Ronald V. Dellums that they would like to sing some American songs. The congressman jokingly asked them if they knew any Motown hits. The students started singing, and Mr. Dellums joined in. Mr. Mfume asked if they knew one of his favorites. They did. Quincy Jones, the music producer who was also an official member of the delegation, stood aside marveling. Within a few minutes, a circle had been formed with the South African youth linked arm in arm with a number of congressmen and General Powell, all singing some of Motown's greatest hits.

The triumph of Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress represents a beacon of hope to people throughout the world. Different lessons will be drawn. I came away more convinced than ever of the need to instill in our young people a love of education and a commitment to participate always in the electoral process. President Mandela emphasized that the long-term success of their political revolution is tied to their ability to educate millions of adults and children.

The validity of his insight is evident when one compares life in the townships and cities of South Africa. The difference is more than the quality of the buildings and the width of the streets. The core difference is in the education of people. There must be equality of education in the townships. The stark gap between the poor and the wealthy can only be bridged by education. That is true in our community, too.

Kurt Schmoke is mayor of Baltimore.

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