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When Nelson Met Boris: How Mandela's Grace Transformed A Moment

South African President Nelson Mandela and Russian President Boris Yeltsin shake hands in Moscow on April 29, 1999.
Misha Japaridze
South African President Nelson Mandela and Russian President Boris Yeltsin shake hands in Moscow on April 29, 1999.

It was the spring of 1999 in Moscow, and two of the 20th century's great revolutionary leaders were having their first face-to-face talks as presidents of their nations.

South Africa's Nelson Mandela was meeting Russia's Boris Yeltsin. I was in the Kremlin's great hall to cover the historic meeting for the South African Broadcasting Corp.

Mandela was 80, his hair gray and his movement stiff, but he was still very sharp and aware, with that famous glint in his eye.

Yeltsin was 68, recovering from a series of heart attacks and struggling with alcoholism. It was widely believed that his staff had him pumped full of medication just to keep him functioning. At that point, he rarely made public appearances.

Puffy-faced and looking disoriented, Yeltsin entered the hall, a pair of minders kept close, guiding him to a place beside Mandela, who looked over with a smile.

After the obligatory handshakes and photos, the men sat at a gilded table to sign a friendship agreement between their countries.

Mandela picked up his pen and inked his name on the document with flourish.

Yeltsin hunched over his copy like a grade school child over his notebook. His tongue poked out of the corner of his mouth in concentration as he slowly, carefully, scrawled his name onto the paper. It was as if he was connecting dots.

After a painful minute or more, Yeltsin was finally done. He looked up, bewildered. Mandela clapped him on the back, smiled, and said, "You have much neater handwriting than me!"

Many in the room chuckled gratefully, including Yeltsin. The tension was released. This was the Mandela magic at work, grace rescuing an awkward moment.

With the documents cleared away, there was another round of handshakes, more photographs snapped. The Kremlin security — large, unsmiling men — then moved in and started shoving us journalists out of the room.

We protested as we backpedaled toward the door.

Then we heard Mandela: "No, no, the press must stay. We must take questions from the press," he shouted, moving toward our little group. The security guards hesitated. The Kremlin press secretary tried to protest, but Mandela continued toward us.

Yeltsin, the old revolutionary, seemed to wake from his slumber. He saw an opportunity. He stepped forward clutching Mandela's arms. The spark was back in his eyes. Like the man who faced down the Soviet military from the top of a tank in front of the Russian Parliament, he called out, "vaprosi, vaprosi (questions, questions)," all the while staying close to the South African president.

To be honest, I don't really remember what we asked, or the answers we got. But I do remember that moment, when one great liberation hero helped to free another, if only briefly.

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David McGuffin