Catherine Higgs, professor of history and vice chair of Africana studies, met Mandela in the Johannesburg airport in February 1991, a year after he was released after serving twenty-seven years in jail for protesting against the apartheid state.
Higgs was passing through Johannesburg on her way from Harare to New York.
“I was on a pay phone talking to a friend in Johannesburg when Mandela walked into the customs hall with an aide,” she said. “The immigration officials—then all still white—greeted him enthusiastically.
“Eventually he and his companion were standing alone. My friend insisted that I hang up and go and introduce myself, which I did. I explained that I was finishing my doctoral dissertation, a biography of another political activist and college professor named D. D. T. Jabavu. Mandela immediately said, ‘Ah, Jili,’ using Jabavu’s clan name. Jabavu had taught Mandela in the 1940s at the University of Fort Hare.
“Already the consummate diplomat, Mandela said, ‘I would like to read the book when it is finished.’ I said, ‘That is very flattering, sir, but I cannot imagine you will have the time.’ He replied, ‘I will read the parts I am interested in; please send me a copy.’
“I did send a copy, though I doubt he ever found the time to read it. For me it was an amazing experience to meet a personal hero and an iconic advocate for social justice.”
In April 1994, Mandela would achieve what many thought was impossible: the peaceful transition of South Africa from segregated apartheid state to multiracial democracy.
Mandela died Thursday at the age of 95.