Mandela Becomes President: The Mayor's View

May 22, 1994|By KURT L. SCHMOKE

It was a tremendous thrill and honor for me to attend the inauguration of President Nelson Mandela of South Africa. I felt that I carried the good wishes of the entire city of Baltimore.

I arrived at Andrews Air Force Base around 4 p.m. on May 9. The delegation was to be divided into two planes. The first plane would accompany first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. I was selected to be in Air Force Two with the vice president and Mrs. Gore.

I was curious about every detail of the plane. Without giving away any security information, I can give a general description of this aircraft. It is a Boeing 707 that is divided into several sections: an area for the Secret Service; an "apartment" for the vice president and his wife; a lounge for briefings; an office-like area for staff; and then a section for about 30 passengers in business-class-size seats. Finally, there is an area for stewards to prepare meals. One thing I learned was that taxpayers' money is not being wasted on extravagant meals; the food was the least memorable part of the entire trip.

There was a card on the window next to my seat that had the official seal of the vice president of the United States. It read, "Mayor Kurt Schmoke, Welcome aboard Air Force Two." The person assigned to sit next to me was Congresswoman Maxine Waters from Los Angeles.

I learned from her very quickly that a number of the members of our delegation had been on these types of trips before, because they were very well prepared. Less than an hour after we took off, people who I had seen in business suits were now in jogging clothes because they knew that they had to be as relaxed as possible in order to be fresh at the end of a 17-hour flight. Unfortunately, the best that I could do to relax was to take off my tie and sport coat.

Each of us was given a briefing book that contained our itinerary, biographies of delegation members and officials in South Africa, and general background information on South Africa. About three hours after we took off, we met the vice president in the lounge for a briefing. Members of the delegation on Air Force Two besides myself and Congresswoman Waters were Rep. Kweisi Mfume; Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun; Rep. John Lewis; the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson; Gen. Colin L. Powell; Bill Lucy, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; and John Tyson, senior adviser to the vice president. A few reporters were also on the plane, including Lerone Bennett from Ebony magazine.

When we arrived, the delegation lined up near a platform. The vice president made a speech about the intention of our country to work with South Africa in the future. As soon as the ceremony was over, the delegation members got into vans lined up behind the vice president's limousine and security vehicles for the ride into Johannesburg. With police escorts, this long caravan rode along the highways into the city.

The first thing that I did when I got into the van was ask the driver if the vehicle that I was in was what the locals refer to as "commbies." He said that it was. I asked that question because my brother, Alex, was riding in a "commby" April 4 when a tire blew out, the driver lost control, and Alex and two others were killed. The vehicle that we were in contained nine people, but the one that Alex was riding in had 15 adults and two babies. I could see how dangerous it was to ride with that many people in the vehicle.

As I rode along the highway, I tried to keep my mind focused on the scenery. Over the next few days I came to appreciate how beautiful a country South Africa is. I understand better now why Alex went there to teach, and I also understand the significance of the struggle for power in an area of such strategic significance. That country clearly has the potential to be a major player in the global economy. It will certainly be one of the most important economic engines for the entire continent of Africa.

We were taken to the Carlton, one of the nicer hotels in Johannesburg. For security reasons, we were taken through the basement, into the kitchen, then onto freight elevators. The vice president and the first lady were taken to separate areas.

We soon were taken to the Market Theater, one of the few places in South Africa where, during apartheid, whites and blacks could legally meet and enjoy the theater together. We met the rest of the delegation and were joined by members of the congressional Black Caucus, actor Danny Glover and other Americans who, over the years, have been involved with the struggle in South Africa. John Kani, a South African actor and playwright, spoke of the history of the Market Theater and talked about the arts community's struggle for freedom in South Africa.

Then Mr. Kani invited Maya Angelou, a member of the official U.S. delegation, to come onto the stage for brief comments. Rather than giving a speech, Ms. Angelou gave a rendition of two poems, one her own and one by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

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