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How Mandela Expanded The Art Of The Possible

President-elect Nelson Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk outside the South African Parliament in Cape Town, May 9, 1994.
Frank James
President-elect Nelson Mandela and President F.W. de Klerk outside the South African Parliament in Cape Town, May 9, 1994.

When I was coming of age in the late 1970s, as an African-American high-schooler and college student, I had two certainties: Nelson Mandela would die in prison in apartheid South Africa and no black person would become U.S. president in my lifetime.

So much for my youthful powers of prediction.

Little could I have known then that I would become a journalist who would one day get to cover events I once thought would never happen, at least not during my time on Earth.

In 1994, I was in South Africa for the Chicago Tribune covering the campaign and election that led to Mandela's becoming that nation's first black president. Years later, I participated in that paper's coverage of hometown politician Barack Obama's journey to the White House. How much luckier could one kid from the South Bronx get?

I was fortunate because I was getting paid to witness history writ large. But also because I was observing history of particular significance to African-Americans.

The political triumphs, first of Mandela, then of Obama, were pinch-me milestones on the long march to freedom for many members of two long-oppressed groups — black South Africans and African-Americans — each of which saw something of its own story in the other's.

Even blacks who didn't belong to Mandela's or Obama's political parties, or black journalists who strove to maintain a professional skepticism, couldn't help but reflect on the extraordinary history that was taking place.

Blacks weren't alone in that, of course. But our histories as being treated at best as second-class citizens arguably made the gap between our experience, and our sense of the possible, wider than it was for many whites.

A South African voting line, April 1994.
/ Frank James
Frank James
A South African voting line, April 1994.

These were moments many generations of black South Africans and Americans had barely dared to imagine and hadn't lived to see. We, the living, saw them.

While we know how Mandela's story turned out, in 1994 when I headed to South Africa with other journalists from across the globe, it was by no means a sure thing.

There was the very real fear of a civil war during the run-up to South Africa's elections. And not just interracial conflict but also between different segments of black South Africans, namely Mandela's African National Congress and the mostly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party. Daily incidents of political violence were occurring across the country. Journalists were warned to prepare for the worst.

On my way to South Africa, for instance, I stopped in London to obtain body armor theoretically capable of stopping AK-47 rounds.

That the flights were far from full going into Johannesburg (and packed leaving it) just added to the foreboding. As did a U.S. Embassy briefing for journalists where a briefer outlined contingency plans for evacuating Americans by convoy if all hell broke loose.

But as Abraham Lincoln knew, there are the "better angels of our nature." And if one man ever personified such angels and knew how to summon them from others, it was Mandela. His powers as a politician, as a negotiator, as a moral authority, kept South Africa from violently shaking itself to pieces.

Like Lincoln, Mandela is one of those world figures I wish I could have interviewed. But at least I did get to shake his hand.

It was at a pre-election church service outside Cape Town to celebrate the merging of two churches — one black, the other "colored" — a symbol of the end of the bizarre apartheid color line.

After the service Mandela stopped at each of the front pews to shake hands, including the pew filled with us journalists. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to shake hands with a world historical figure whom I had never expected to survive prison, let alone to be standing in front of me with that broad smile. It was surreal.

I recall that after I returned to the U.S., when people asked me for my takeaways from my South Africa experience, my first response usually was: "Nothing is impossible."

Alas, it was a lesson I would later forget.

When Obama announced that he was running for U.S. Senate, I had serious doubts that someone with so exotic a name could win a statewide race in Illinois.

The Obama family at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.
/ Frank James
Frank James
The Obama family at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Then, when he announced he was running for president, like many other African-Americans I was dubious. Sure, the U.S. had progressed much since the civil rights era, but not that much.

Obama, however, clearly saw something many others didn't. He imagined a future that looked nothing like the past or even the present, then made it happen.

On the day Mandela died, Obama recalled that his first real political activity was in 1979 when he took part in an Occidental College campus protest against apartheid. Obama noted the older man's influence on him: "The day that he was released from prison gave me a sense of what human beings can do when they're guided by their hopes and not by their fears," the president said.

Eighteen years after Mandela was freed, there I sat on Invesco Field in Denver experiencing a sense of the surreal similar to what I had in that church outside Cape Town. The Obama family had taken the stage on the last night of the 2008 Democratic National Convention after Obama's acceptance speech.

I sensed it again when he was inaugurated as the 44th president.

It's said that politics is the art of the possible. Both Mandela and Obama expanded the definition of what's possible in politics and racial progress so much that they've made it harder for a doubter like me to rule anything out.

Change may come with difficulty, but that doesn't mean it's impossible. It was one of Mandela's lessons to the world I intend not to forget again.

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.