As a college student in the early eighties in America my exposure to South Africa was all about apartheid and the pressure on multinational companies doing business in South Africa to end human rights abuses. It was a very one-sided view of a complicated country and one that brought me no interest in ever going there.
Fast forward to 1996. Nelson Mandela had won the presidency two years before in the first multiracial elections after he negotiated the end to apartheid. Things were changing fast in South Africa but the news of the country still left me disinterested in visiting.
Then I was tasked with finding locations to shoot commercials for BT, the British Telephone Company and before I knew it I was on a place from London to Johannesburg. Although I was sick of hearing about South Africa from the years of news coverage I actually knew practically nothing about the country.
My disinterest was immediately replaced with a love at first sight in my first days in the beautiful country. The people I met there, both black and white, were incredibly kind, sweet, generous and interesting. I visited the homes of a tribe of Pedi who wore tartan kilts, game preserves that raised big cats, farms of Afrikaners who raised ostriches, the Kruger Park for safaris as well as the grand palace resort in Sun City.
People would ask me if in America I had heard of what Nelson Mandela was doing in South Africa. The question was posed to me with different inflections depending on who was doing the asking. I told them of course I had heard of him. Clearly things were changing fast in this country. The surprise I felt most is that all the people I met appeared to be the happiest people on earth. I don’t know if they were that way before Mandela’s election, but I have to guess they were inclined that way naturally because it was so genuine.
It came as a little bit of a shock to me since I had spent the fifteen previous years being bombarded by media reports of strife and great unhappiness in South Africa. Of course reality is not always the way things are portrayed in the news, but I definitely got the feeling that much of the good that was happening was due to the work that Nelson Mandela did.
South Africa is still the one place on earth I want to revisit. The people I met there made me feel welcomed and treasured. They were excited about the possibility of my shooting commercials in their beautiful country and showing the British that South Africa was so much more than the country that had apartheid. I am thankful I was able to visit South Africa when Nelson Mandela was President and see what he was doing. God Bless Nelson Mandela.