THE QUESTION had been on my mind for a long time. There I was in the room with the one person in the world who could answer it -- Nelson Mandela. So I asked him, and I keep thinking about what he had to say.
The question was important to international politics and morality, but essentially simple. What does the African National Congress plan to do or say about the fact that Arab states, supposed to be strong supporters of the anti-apartheid movement, have for years been violating the embargo against South Africa by sending large, regular shipments of oil?
On April 15 I wrote about details of oil shipments to South Africa from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Egypt, Iraq and Southern Yemen. Enough Middle Eastern oil was sent to fill South African military and industrial needs.
Oil specialists in this country and the transfer point in Rotterdam knew, and a report appeared in at least one scholarly journal. So obviously it is no secret to the ANC.
I wrote that I favored the embargo and opposed the Israeli sale of arms to South Africa and would appreciate reaction from anti-apartheid groups about the massive Arab violations.
I received none, which disappointed me. I had a chance to ask Mandela himself in June during a talk at City Hall. I forgot. I was so impressed with his bearing, courtesy and warm manner of discourse -- and most of all by the strength of character he showed after 27 years of imprisonment -- that the question went clean out of my mind.
To me, he was a living reminder of other brave men and women I admire -- political prisoners in the Soviet Union and other nations who suffered so much so long and never broke.
That was what I thought most important about Mandela, that and his meaning to South African racial freedom. I still do. It overrode the unhappiness I felt about his dismissal of tyrannies in dictatorships that had helped him.
But in August I found we were both attending a conference on hatred and how to oppose it, organized by Elie Wiesel and held in Oslo.
Mandela scheduled a press conference for reporters from all over the world. Eagerly and hopefully I put the question to him at last: What about the Arab breaking of the embargo, what did he and the ANC think or want to say about it?
Without missing a beat, he said:
"There are certain things we are willing to publicize. There are others which are confidential, which we have decided not to publicize." What? I felt I had not heard him correctly or maybe he had not understood me. So I tried again:
But Mr. Mandela, when you were in the U.S. you talked about how important it was for the United States and other countries to continue observing sanctions, so why won't you talk about these Arab violations now? I don't understand.
He had heard the first time, all right. Again without hesitation he replied that he and the ANC would choose what aspects of the embargo they would talk about and which ones they would not talk about.
The last time I had been told to stick a question in my ear was on my first day of reporting long ago. A police lieutenant told me that when I tried to get information about a body lying just beyond the door behind him.
For a moment I laughed to myself about the connecting memory but have not laughed about it since. I went on vacation, returned to write about other topics, but thought often about Mandela's response. The arrival of another South African visitor, President F.W. de Klerk, pushed it forward again.
Mandela's refusal to criticize the cruelties of Cuba and Libya and the terrorism of the Palestine Liberation Organization are chilling. If he achieves power he may be on the other side of a lot of things many Americans think are right or wrong.
But right now he is critical to the opportunity for a settlement in South Africa that would give blacks power and whites security. South Africa is lucky to have him around -- as it is lucky to have President de Klerk in office to negotiate with him.
But the embargo and the truth about its violations do not belong to Mandela and the ANC alone. They belong to all people who support the anti-apartheid movement.
A.M. Rosenthal writes for the New York Times; an editorial on this column appears today.