As 1994 dawned, four months before South Africa was to hold its first democratic election — crowning Nelson Mandela its first black president — he’d huddled with supporters in Nassau, the Bahamas.
Over the course of those three days, the man destined to become an international icon would open up about many things.
And the essence of his conversations were captured and preserved in “Notes for History,” a never-before-seen, eight-page document written by his good friend, Ted Sorensen, the longtime advisor and speechwriter to President John F. Kennedy who would go on to practice international law, helping emerging democracies.
The world on Wednesday commemorated what would have been the 100th birthday of one of the most revered leaders of the 20th century, with former President Barack Obama marking a celebration in South Africa with his highest-profile, post-White House speech to date.
Meanwhile, in north suburban Chicago, this rare document was quietly donated to Northwestern University’s Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, the Chicago Sun-Times learned.
Exclusively obtained and reviewed by the Sun-Times, the typewritten, double-spaced document contains some treasures. Some of its nuggets are perhaps well-known; others, not so much. To read all, however, is to be transported back in time.
The document, donated by Sorensen’s daughter, is, according to Ted Sorensen, “Recollections of My Conversations With Nelson Mandela, January 1-3, 1994,” composed “mostly in, and on a plane returning from Nassau, the Bahamas.”
There is politics. Mandela shared that he disliked and distrusted former ally and Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, whom ANC colleagues had blamed for “unaccountable funds from right wing foreigners, etc.” But he had high praise for fellow African National Congress leader Thabo Mbeki — who would succeed Mandela as South African president, from 1999-2008.
Mandela disliked Ronald Reagan, the document states. “He reported a Reagan statement to the effect that there was no African who was a true Democrat, later amending it to say that he had finally met one — Buthelezi.” But Mandela liked George H.W. Bush, “the first head of state to call him upon his release from prison, who was cordial and decent in all meetings and remained in touch after Bush’s defeat, even inviting him to stay at his home in Texas.”
And while Mandela deeply respected F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s president from 1989-1994, Mandela did not trust the man with whom he had shared a Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for working to secure a peaceful transition.
Within the notes are Mandela’s sharings of a personal nature: He worried whether Americans understood his accent. He insisted on attending church every Sunday, no matter where he found himself on the globe; and he found it hard to break his childhood habit of two meals a day.
As a youth, he’d admired the white spot in the middle of his father’s hair, and used chalk to imitate it; but when his own hair began whitening, he was none too pleased, Mandela shared. He had been trying to convince the granddaughter who was caring for him at home to go away to college, but she was refusing, Mandela said. And he was hoping to finish the memoir he’d begun writing in prison. His autobiography, of course, “Long Walk to Freedom,” was published later that year, in December 1994.
Mandela also talked pop culture. According to the document, Mandela was curious about the ’93 child sex abuse scandal surrounding Michael Jackson. “He asked whether I thought Michael Jackson, the singer, was guilty of sex abuse charges. Jackson had offered to come to South Africa and give three concerts to raise money for a school.” The allegations had surfaced in 1993. Jackson reportedly settled with the family of 13-year-old Evan Chandler for some $23 million in January 1994.
Mandela was also quite impressed by actress Elizabeth Taylor, who was as passionate as he about battling HIV/AIDS, saying “she received a bigger standing ovation than his for an eloquent speech she gave on AIDS, a long text delivered wholly without looking at it,” when the two where honored in Madrid in 1993. He was also impressed with Kennedy widow Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, who died later that year, on May 19, 1994.
Even Chicago turned up in Mandela’s conversations.
Mandela “told how the Chicago police during his July visit had found a man in an apartment overlooking the place where he was to speak, with a rifle and telescopic lens — supposedly all innocent,” the document states.
“He is not indifferent to his security … but he realizes that he cannot prevent all snipers, that he must campaign in crowds … he would like to get a special BMW that apparently has a bulletproof bubble and bomb-proof structure (and liked my idea that the German government might give one to both him and DeKlerk).”
It was in ’93, during Mandela’s cross-country U.S. tour to raise money for his ANC party prior to the April 1994 post-apartheid elections, that Mandela and then-wife Winnie Mandela visited Chicago.
Hundreds had waited for hours outside City Hall for a glimpse of the icon freed in 1990 after being imprisoned 27 years for opposing apartheid. Former Mayor Richard M. Daley and black elected officials hosted him at the mayor’s office. Chicago pastors held a luncheon for him, and the American Bar Association, a reception.
Sorensen’s New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison came on board as Mandela’s pro bono attorneys during the ’93 trip. A senior partner who counseled leaders like Mandela and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, it was Sorensen who conceptualized the South Africa Free Election Fund, which raised more than $6.5 million to support voter education among millions of first-time, black South African voters.
Sorensen, author of the 2008 memoir, “Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History,” died at age 82 on Oct. 31, 2010. The rare document was discovered in 2011 within six large bankers’ boxes of personally meaningful documents he’d held onto, while donating much of his papers to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.
His daughter, Juliet Sorensen, decided to donate the Mandela document to N.U. on the 100th birthday of the man who rose from political prisoner to president, and died Dec. 5, 2013, at the age of 95.