Updated: January 12, 2014 6:24AM
The angry uniformed man pushed his beefy red face into mine. “Hey, do you think you are bleck?” he roared.
I was a lot confused and a little scared. Bleck? What was bleck?
The guard pointed at my face. “You are white!” he said. “You are not bleck!”
Bleck was black. I would soon get used to English being spoken with an Afrikaans accent. Afrikaners were the white ruling minority of South Africa. Hardly anybody else in the world spoke their language, and language carried a terrible weight in their country.
On June 16, 1976, after the government insisted that black students had to be taught in Afrikaans, the students walked out of class in protest and held a mass demonstration in Soweto, outside Johannesburg. Police opened fire and killed hundreds of them.
It was now 1978, and I had come to South Africa for the Chicago Sun-Times to spend a month researching what would become a 13-part series on apartheid. I was 29, and it was my first foreign assignment. I had been in the country for five minutes, and I was already in trouble.
The guard with the red face pointed to the signs above the two immigration counters in front of me. One said “Europeans,” and the other said “Non-Europeans.” I had gone to the non-European line.
I am not a European, I told the angry man. I am an American.
He first thought I was trying to be cute and then realized how clueless I was. “You are stending in the line for blecks,” he said. “And you are white!”
Symbolically, this was no small thing. In other parts of the world — America included — racism was allowed. Under apartheid, racism was demanded.
I finally got out of the airport. The next day, I drove to Pretoria, the nation’s administrative capital, to see whether I could get a permit to go to Robben Island and interview Nelson Mandela. He had been imprisoned there since 1964.
I still have all my notes, and they record that I met with a C. Schmidt of the South African government to make my formal request. She was “surprised and faintly hostile,” my notes say.
“Yes, you can go to Robben Island,” C. Schmidt told me. “But you can never come back.”
My notes do not record whether she was smiling when she said this.
Though over the next month, black South Africans managed to sneak me in to all sorts of places where I was not supposed to go. Robben Island was too tough a nut to crack. A former leper colony, it was three miles off the coast of Cape Town, and aside from the guards, South Africa had a navy and air force to patrol it.
I did not get to Robben Island until I came back 20 years later with Bill Clinton. He had come to Africa on a six-country, 12-day tour, and meeting with Mandela, who was now president of South Africa, was the emotional high point.
The two men helicoptered to the island and walked arm in arm around the grounds where Mandela had spent years breaking big rocks into little rocks and little rocks into littler ones.
In Cellblock B, Mandela and Clinton walked down a long, featureless gray corridor to tiny Cell 5, which contained only a small stack of felt blankets, a slop bucket, a tin plate and a cup.
“This was my home,” Mandela said lightheartedly. “It was so big at the time. I don’t know why it’s so small now.”
But it was on a different island that a different Mandela had emerged. It was Goree, three miles off the coast of Senegal on the western bulge of Africa. For hundreds of years, wooden ships sailed from there to the New World with slaves chained in their holds.
The House of Slaves still remains a popular site, even though scholars dispute how many slaves actually passed through the island. Clinton went there, as did Pope John Paul II, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
But when Mandela went there shortly after he was freed from imprisonment in South Africa, he did so without fanfare. Having spent so many years in prison, you would think the last thing he would want to see was a prison cell.
But he insisted on being led to the smallest cell in the House of Slaves, the one where the word “Recalcitrant” is still carved on the wall outside. It is the cruelest room in a cruel place, minuscule, without air or light, and so small a man cannot stand up in it.
Though it was difficult for Mandela to stoop down through the doorway — years of breaking rocks had taken a toll on his body — he crouched and shuffled inside into the darkness.
When he emerged, he had no smiles, no jokes. Tears streamed down his face, and he did not speak.
The wrong done to him was something he could stand.
The wrong done to his people, the wrong done to humanity, was sometimes more than he could bear.
But in the end, he bore it. “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies,” he once said.
Today, his enemies have faded away. Today, he is a warrior at peace.