Reflections on working for Nelson Mandela… by David Fenton

The greatest privilege of my life as an activist was working with Nelson Mandela.

He was the closest thing to a saint I have ever met – a man truly without anger. And given what was done to him, how could that be? This is a man who was not allowed to touch his wife through a plate glass window for over two decades. Yet he forgave those who tortured him so. He transcended, in a way none of us could. This is his true legacy.

I once watched him meet with one of his former prison guards and an architect to plan his new house. Mandela wanted it exactly like the one he had occupied during his later years in prison. The warmth, respect and conviviality was clearly genuine. It was overwhelming to witness.

Our firm started to represent the African National Congress in the United States pro-bono in the early 1980s. Back then, the Reagan Administration officially and falsely classified the group as a terrorist organization lead by communists. Shamefully, our government was engaged in a military alliance with the apartheid regime to overthrow the neighboring government of Angola, where the ANC was based in exile.

I was introduced to the ANC’s leaders by my friend the peace and human rights activist Cora Weiss. After being checked-out by the ANC’s representative to the United Nations, Johnny Makitini, I then met in New York with ANC leader Oliver Tambo, his Deputy Thabo Mbeki, Information Chief Pallo Jordan and later the head of their military wing Chris Hani, I offered to introduce them to leading journalists and editors to dispel the utterly false notion that they were some kind of American-hating communists.

They would patiently explain their vision of a non-racial, democratic South Africa as we trudged to media offices around the country. Yes, Tambo would explain, there are communists in the ANC, as we all must unite to overthrow apartheid. Yes, the ANC receives aid from Cuba, Norway and Sweden, and anyone else who will help. That doesn’t make us communists. We’d like the U.S. to help, too. Their equanimity in the face of so much hostility from our government – and not a few in the media – was my first contact with the remarkable culture of forgiveness Mandela inculcated in the ANC.

Working with Randall Robinson, the head of the African-American lobbying group TransAfrica, we set up the Southern Africa Media Project to fully demystify the ANC for Americans and push for sanctions. Support came from a member of the Rockefeller family. The project also assisted the liberation movement in what is now Namibia, which at the time was fully controlled by South Africa. Its leader, Sam Nujoma, was also a regal, dignified, brilliant man. We also started helping journalists learn more about the conflict in Angola, where the United States was engaged in shameful behavior backing a true terrorist, Jonas Savimbi, apartheid’s agent in their quest to get Angola’s oil. South Africa has no domestic oil supply — it is a little known fact of history that had South Africa succeeded in seizing the Cabinda oil fields in Angola, they may have been able to resist sanctions and Mandela may well have died in prison.


I made several trips to Angola in the 1980s where I met with ANC leaders. Travelling deep into the country’s interior, I was appalled at what the U.S. government was supporting. At the time, communist Angola had the highest amputee rate per capita in the world, as apartheid’s strategy was to mine agricultural fields to cause famine to disrupt the country. Sitting in what was left of the town square in Huambo I saw so many people limping by without arms and legs it was impossible not to cry.

One of the craziest things I ever saw was a camp of Cuban soldiers protecting nearby Texas good ole boys in ten gallon hats working the Angolan oil fields for an American oil company. And who were the Cubans protecting the Americans from? From American-backed rebels working with apartheid to attack the American oil workers. Talk about a crazy policy!

The anti-apartheid movement in the U.S. and around the world tightened the noose around apartheid with international sanctions and divestment from companies doing business in South Africa. We worked for the movement to pass sanctions in the U.S. Congress and then over-ride President Reagan’s veto of the legislation. By then Mandela and the ANC were international rallying cries for freedom and justice.

Upon Mandela’s release from prison, we volunteered to help organize the media coverage of his first U.S. tour in many U.S. cities. This is when I first met Madiba, touring with him, Randall, Arthur Ashe, Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte and others. I briefed him before all interviews, helped the ANC leadership deliberate on message points and responses to attacks even then. Mandela was always gracious and attentive with the press, and ever so patient. Thabo Mbeki, who later became Mandela’s successor as President, on the other hand, hated talking to journalists. He was a cold and aloof character (who suffered in exile for years, and whose father served on Robben Island with Mandela). Many of us were surprised and disappointed when he was named Mandela’s successor. We now know that Mandela wasn’t happy with it either.

I spent several weeks in South Africa in the run-up to the 1994 Presidential election as a volunteer organizing all foreign media coverage of the election for the ANC under Pallo Jordan’s direction (he remains on the Executive Committee of the ANC). This is when I spent hours with Mandela every day. We often had down-time in between interviews and, surprisingly, I was at times left alone with him in between interviews at the ANC election hotel HQ. One day, I asked Mandela if he knew that TransAfrica’s Randall Robinson was at that moment on a hunger strike demanding that President Clinton intervene to restore Haitian President Aristide to power. We were all worried about Randall’s health. Mandela didn’t know, and was surprised no one had told him. He summoned an aide and immediately called President Clinton in front of me to urge him to do what Randall was urging. Shortly thereafter, the United States intervened militarily and restored Aristide to power.

I was also privileged to spend time together in Johannesburg with Mandela and Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley. They had a true bond. Mandela knew that Manley’s father, Prime Minister Norman Manley, was the first world leader in the 1960s to refuse to participate in sports with South African teams because of apartheid. Michael Manley was literally overthrown as Prime Minister in 1979 by the CIA as revenge by Henry Kissinger for Jamaica refusing to condemn the Cuban intervention to keep Angola’s oil fields out of apartheid’s hands (Jamaica held a seat on the UN Security Council at the time). Being with these two amazing men at once is one of the most inspiring memories I have.

A few weeks after the election, I wrote to Mandela suggesting that we help organize the grassroots anti-apartheid movement to begin providing material aid for South Africa’s reconstruction and anti-poverty efforts. He took the time to write me back, but decided to have the Embassy in Washington do this instead. Knowing that the embassy was still staffed largely by apartheid apologists, many of us were skeptical. The effort never materialized at scale.

“The service rendered to the ANC by Fenton Communications during the difficult years has been of great value to us,” Mandela wrote. I will cherish his letter and memory forever.

Rest in peace, Madiba. Thank you for inspiring the whole world for generations to come.