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Renee Montagne Reflects On Covering Mandela


Listen if you would with us to this archival tape from Mandela's inauguration as president of South Africa in 1994. We're about to hear a reporter who was in the crowd for that event.



One world finally did end today and another began. And that new world was greeted with joy at the inauguration and also humor. There was much joking in the crowd about how nervous some whites were about whether the new government would soon be discarding familiar names like Johannesburg and Pretoria and replacing them with African ones.

And then someone called out forget the cities and the airports and the parks; let's start with the days of the week. From now on it will be Mondela, Tuesdela, Wednesdela. And the crowd roared.

INSKEEP: That's from a report on Nelson Mandela's inauguration in 1994. You may recognize the voice. Renee, your voice hasn't changed all that much.

MONTAGNE: You know, I've never heard that. I only heard myself saying at the time, yes, it was a joyous, joyous day, that day of the inauguration. And when I said the crowd roared, you weren't hearing it now but they did.

INSKEEP: They did indeed. Now, that was 1994. You'd already been there for a while. When did you first arrive in South Africa?

MONTAGNE: Yeah. I touched down in Johannesburg on the day Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He was released down in Cape Town. It was February 11, 1990. And it was a new day in South Africa. It dawned in a downpour in Johannesburg, which added, by the way, to the rejoicing because as one Sowetan told us, in Africa rain is a good omen.

It's a blessing. I think you can fairly say that turned out to be true.

INSKEEP: So this was 1990. What were people feeling about him at that moment?

MONTAGNE: Steve, it was a moment of great optimism, of course, among black South Africans who had been waiting for a lifetime for this day. But also among the white minority. I mean they were nervous but there was a palpable sense of relief among most of them. Which might sound strange, but the burden of apartheid was lifted from them as well. It was hard on the entire nation.

And Mandela himself was, in those days, more beloved than revered as he has sort of become nowadays, known affectionately by his clan name Madiba. Or people called him The Old Man. You know, he was around - I remember one time I went to a press conference at his home in Soweto and found myself, you know, myself and one other guy and his small crew, a couple of reporters sitting around Mandela's kitchen table chatting with him.

INSKEEP: What was that like?

MONTAGNE: Well, there was an intimacy about the relationship to Mandela - you would see him on a weekly basis at the ANC headquarters. The press conferences were always very small. And I'll tell you one memory that I have. Given now that he's thought of so much as a great man, one of my best memories was of him more as a gentleman. And he was rather a famous flirt.

And a couple of years after his release, months were spent drafting a new constitution and it was taking place out near the airport in a convention center. So once you got out there, you couldn't leave. And, you know, food would be laid out at a certain point in the day but nothing would happen all day long.

And sometimes they'd call a press conference very suddenly. So, you know, as most reporters do, I like headed for the table and like loaded up. And suddenly there's this press conference called. So I rush down to the front so that I could get my tape recorder going and get my mic up on the podium.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

MONTAGNE: And Mandela sat down and everybody was lined up and he was right in front of me. And I'm listening and wolfing down my food. And I look up at one moment and he's looking down at me. And he leans down very quietly because there's stuff going on at the other end of the table, very quietly says: Bon appetite.


MONTAGNE: And that is quintessential Mandela. You know, that is one reason he is so beloved. He had the common touch.

INSKEEP: While he was noticing other people. That's what that says.

MONTAGNE: He saw people. He saw people. And it's a quality that he had that was part of his greatness. And you know, Steve, what sticks with me this morning is something that President Obama said yesterday. He said something quite simple. He said we will not likely see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. And, you know, I have to say I know for sure in my lifetime, nothing - nobody like him will ever come along.

INSKEEP: Renee, thanks.


INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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