The Editor's Desk

Nelson Mandela's golden age: Jim Boren recalls 1990 visit to California

Executive Editor Jim Boren was The Bee's political writer in 1990 when Nelson Mandela visited California. He shares his memories about the South African leader and his perspectives in this column.

They called it "Celebration Saturday," a June day in 1990 when 58,000 Californians packed the Oakland Coliseum to see Nelson Mandela and help him end apartheid in South Africa. Mandela had been released from prison just five months earlier, and he came to the United States to thank the citizenry for this support.

With the Oakland crowd cheering, Mandela pledged that they would make history together. Four years later, apartheid formally ended, and Mandela was elected president of South Africa.

I was a political reporter for The Bee at the time, and my role was to chronicle this historic visit. It was such an important event that my newspaper not only sent me to Los Angeles and Oakland to cover his trip, but also dispatched two photographers, Carl Crawford and Richard Darby.

I've been thinking a lot about that long-ago assignment as Mandela fell ill, and then died on Thursday. Twenty-three years later, I still keep the Mandela press credential issued by the U.S. State Department hanging in my office.

Mandela made a lasting impression in a way that presidents and other politicians I have covered over the years did not. I saw him speak four times over two days in Los Angeles and Oakland, and also attended a news conference with a handful of people after his last speech.

He was an impressive presence when he strode into that tiny room to meet reporters, and you could feel a serenity and sense of purpose emanating from him. Those of us in the room knew that this was history in the making, and it was only a matter of time before apartheid fell.

Mandela was on an eight-city U.S. tour that ended in Oakland. It was a trip that was physically demanding for Mandela, who was 71 at the time, and his aides said he was very tired when he reached the Golden State.

I covered the California leg, which included a speech at Los Angeles City Hall and then a rally attended by 70,000 people at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

In Oakland, much of the crowd was waving the black, green and yellow banners of the African National Congress. The mood was upbeat, although supporters became silent as Mandela talked about his homeland and racial separation.

The South African freedom fighter reminded his supporters that their work to end apartheid was still not done. They nodded, and there were shouts of encouragement.

The Oakland crowd gave Mandela energy, and he told them that their enthusiasm made him feel like a "young man of 35." He said he felt like an "old battery that has been recharged." The crowd roared with laughter and Mandela smiled brightly.

I took notes and sought out local residents to get reactions to the Mandela visit. I found someone from Fresno and also saw representatives of the United Farm Workers. A signed poster from Cesar Chavez and a UFW flag were given to Mandela. Chavez had written on the flag, "To my brother, Nelson Mandela. Keep the faith." I thought at the time that their struggles for justice had many similarities.

Later at the news conference, Mandela said his trip to the United States was a success, and again emphasized that the help of every American was crucial to ending apartheid. He promised a better South Africa.