Nelson Mandela at Oakland International Airport, 1990 (Photo Credit: San Francisco Gate)

Nelson Mandela was a lion of a statesman and an icon for the struggle for social justice especially in South Africa where he served as the country’s first democratically elected president after the dismantling of apartheid. With his recent death the world mourns a courageous leader who was a symbol of social justice, freedom, and democracy for his country and for the world. Even before he became president, Nelson Mandela, was a charismatic attorney and a leader of the African National Congress who was on the forefront of dismantling apartheid. He was imprisoned for defying the apartheid state and after his release he took a tour of United States to raise support for anti-apartheid, it was then that I met him. I was selected to meet him as part of the welcoming community at the Oakland International Airport in June of 1990. I was one of the lucky ones from the Bay Area to welcome him and say a couple words to the civil rights icon.

Growing up with the disability of cerebral palsy always set me apart from my peers. Because of my severe mobility and speech disability I maneuver in a power wheelchair and communicate with an electronic augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device. Because I traverse the world in an unique way it led me to have a desire to advocate for myself and people like myself to have our own voice and our own self expression. That was why I was so excited to meet Nelson Mandela because he dedicated his life to advocating for the freedom and equality that his people deserved and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.

When my parents informed me that I was selected as part of the welcoming committee to greet Nelson Mandela I was extremely excited. I was a nine year old who didn’t know much about South African history and apartheid, but my parents told me he was one of the main leaders fighting against South African apartheid, which to my mind put him on par with one of my role models, Dr. Martin Luther King. At nine I realized that it was a grave injustice for Mandela to be locked in prison for twenty-seven years since he advocated for all who inhabited the land that his ancestors lived for centuries have the freedom and democracy that everyone deserves in their home country.

I spent over a week preparing what I was going to say to Mandela. I had my Dad’s help with ideas of what to say and with revisions. When I was finished I thought I had an excellent five-minute speech stored in my Touch Talker, at least to my nine-year-old self.  I waited in anticipation for the day I would meet the famed Nelson Mandela. When the day came I went with my family to Oakland International Airport and was ushered to the front of a large crowd that gathered on the side where Mandela’s plane was going to dock. When his plane finally came and he appeared with his then wife, Winnie, there was a great cheer from the crowd. I was so nervous I was worried that when I finally met the famous high-powered couple I would not be able to push the right buttons on my Touch Talker to speak my prepared speech. But when the time came and both Nelson and Winnie Mandela came up to me I was able to speak the prepared statement to the delight of the couple. I believed Mandela smiled after he heard what I said to him. I know for sure that Winnie gave me a hug and a few kisses on the cheek. And although I cannot quite recall what Nelson Mandela said to me, I will remember that encounter for the rest of my life.

After our encounter Mandela became president of his nation and helped build a thriving democracy.  The way he unified his country with his leadership after decades of racial divisions because of apartheid is definitely outstanding. During the death throes of apartheid the country was ready to tear itself apart, but under Nelson Mandela’s leadership he was able to unify the country under one national identity. I would visit South Africa 18 years after my first meeting with Mandela and see first hand the populace’s acceptance of the country’s multicultural heritage as being an integral part of who they are as a nation. This is an enduring part of Mandela’s legacy and I am honored and overjoyed to have met such a phenomenal man that was such a positive influence to his country and to the world.

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