Former AAI President Offers Reflections on Nelson Mandela

AAI and Mandela

Vivian Lowery Derryck. President of AAl, speaks with President Nelson Mandela in 1994 when AAI hosted a private meeting at the Blair House with South African President Nelson Mandela during his first State visit to the United States.

Vivian Lowery Derryck, President of the Africa-America Institute from 1989 to 1996 and President of The Bridges Institute, presents a personal remembrance of  South African President Nelson Mandela and his connection to AAI.


Nelson Mandela’s death will reorder the moral construct of our world. It forces all citizen activists, freedom fighters, human rights defenders and young people worldwide to reflect on the state of our planet and to recalibrate the depth of our human commitment to liberty, justice and equality.

At least that is the case for me and my involvement with Madiba. In 1989 I became president of the African-American Institute (AAI), a leading non-profit which, at the core of its mission, championed the end of apartheid and freedom for Nelson Mandela and his fellow prisoners known as the Rivonia Eight. AAI, and particularly its dedicated Senior Vice President Frank Ferrari, had been working with the African National Congress (ANC)and others seeking change in southern Africa for decades.

On Sunday, February 11, 1990, Frank and I talked on the phone, eyes glued to the TV, and wept with joy as we watched Nelson Mandela walk out of Victor Verster Prison, holding hands with Winnie. Two weeks later, Frank and I found ourselves sitting on a black leather sofa in the living room of Madiba’s home in Soweto. We had to pinch ourselves to believe it. Just then, Nelson Mandela walked into the room with a big smile. It was a moment as close to heaven as I shall ever come.

He spent over an hour with us, re-affirming his commitment to a nonviolent transition, stressing his belief in a new, non-racial state. He underscored his rock-solid commitment to the ANC and its decision-making structure, and restated his strong belief in education as the key to a strong, democratic nation. Winnie came in and Madiba introduced Frank and me to her. She smiled shyly, exchanged a few words and excused herself. As we resumed the conversation, I asked Madiba about women’s special role in the liberation struggle, and he spoke of Winnie, Albertina Sisulu and other women. We could hear the pride in his voice for their courage and steadfastness, and his sorrow for their inevitable sacrifices.

At the end of the meeting, when I struggled to express how much he meant to our world and what an icon he was, he gently shushed me. Frank and I left, knowing that we had been in the presence of a living saint.

I met with Madiba several times over the course of those heady first four years and beyond. In his first, triumphant U.S. visit he reinforced his message of non-violent change, but cautioned that change was inevitable. He had a remarkable memory and easy facility to capture just the right word to make a person feel that he or she held a special place in his heart. At a reception in his honor at the home of AIDS researcher and activist Dr. Mathilde Krim, he joked about movies in reference to her film-producer husband, Arthur Krim.

On another occasion, after a spellbinding speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, Madiba, a former boxer, posed for photos with Mike Tyson. Madiba was an accessible hero to every man and woman who dreamed of freedom and justice.

At President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural ball, Madiba was sitting in an upper section of the ballroom with only a few bodyguards. I had hoped to see him. Those were the days before 9/11, so I was able to talk my way past the guards for my husband and me to go to his cordoned-off seating area.

Madiba recognized me, smiled, and got up. By that time, President Clinton and Hillary had arrived. Bill was coming to serenade Nelson Mandela on his saxophone, so Bob and I stayed put as I sat next to Madiba for President Clinton’s salute to the South African leader. Again, Madiba looked at me and smiled, as if to assure me that it was alright for us to be there with him.

During his first official State Visit to the United States as President of South Africa in October 1994, I presented Nelson Mandela with the African-American Institute’s Arthur A. Houghton Star Crystal Award for Excellence, in the company of AAI’s Board of Trustees at Blair House. The photo of the Blair House moment is a stunning picture of Madiba; AAI board chairman, Roger Wilkins; AAI Board member, Maurice Tempelsman, a staunch anti-apartheid supporter and confidant to many African leaders; Frank Ferrari; Executive VP Steve MacDonald and VP Jerry Drew. The occasion was a stellar moment for AAI as Madiba thanked AAI for its steadfast advocacy, reflected on the importance of education for a healthy nation and painted a picture of a future South Africa as a rainbow nation.

It was on that occasion that Madiba called me his girlfriend. I murmured, “I accept.” Overhearing me, Roger Wilkins, asked me what my husband Bob would say. I whispered, “He’ll understand.”

For all of our meetings over the years, I most appreciated the opportunity to work with Madiba on HIV/AIDS. Madiba understood the scourge of the disease, the human and economic toil that it was taking on his people and the disease’s harsh stigma that drove people from their homes, sometimes ending in tragic deaths. Although it was after his term as president, Nelson Mandela had a major substantive impact on the way South Africa dealt with the disease. By giving the crisis his personal attention, he shamed crisis deniers to action.

In 2000, when I served as the Assistant Administrator for Africa at USAID, I visited South Africa for consultations and an HIV/AIDS conference. A joint meeting had been set up with Madiba for Sandy Thurman, White House HIV/AIDS Coordinator, and me. We planned to visit an AIDS orphanage together. The children were nattily dressed and eager to sing. Big bright smiles lit their faces as Madiba ambled in. He greeted the children, hugging two or three, and slowly walked towards me. With his big smile he asked, “Do you remember me?” I laughed with delight and we hugged at the time.

With Thursday’s news, my answer is “Yes, Madiba. I remember and revere you, as does the entire world. You are a generous man of wisdom, vision, tenacity, humility and grace. You will always be our saint. We and our children and our children’s children will remember you into eternity.”

thumbnail vivian derryck

Vivian Lowery Derryck is the President of The Bridges Institute.

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