On February 2 1990, I was sitting in a hotel suite in Cape Town watching a television monitor as Nelson Mandela walked through the gates of Victor Verster Prison. I had served as Africa Bureau Chief for NBC News for two years at that point, and I’d spent a great deal of that time planning for our network’s coverage of this event.
In the months leading up to the release, I had tried to look up every person who might have influence with Mandela to lobby for a world-exclusive first interview for NBC. I’d met with old friends of Mandela’s in Soweto, I’d flown down to Cape Town to buy lunch for Mandela’s former lawyer, and met with African National Congress leaders in exile in Zimbabwe. Some said they would try to help, but no one promised anything.
By the morning of Mandela’s release it appeared that no one had the inside track on the first interview. The former prisoner was surrounded by ANC handlers as he was whisked from the prison gates to City Hall. No one could get near him. As he concluded a speech to thousands of supporters from the City Hall balcony, word came down from the ANC that Mandela would be heading to Bishop’s Court, the residence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu outside Cape Town, for the night, and that the media would be given a photo op of the Mandelas in the gardens behind the residence the following morning. And no, there would be no “exclusives.”
We wrapped up our coverage late that night, and I was back in our makeshift hotel office early the next morning to take in the video feed from Bishop’s Court. As planned, Nelson and Winnie strolled arm-in-arm among the flowers as photographers, at a safe distance, got pictures for the morning shows and the newspapers. We fed a story and some extra video to New York in plenty of time for the 7 a.m. news.
I chatted with the crew when they returned from Bishop’s Court.
“Anyone still there when you guys left?”
“Just a couple of ABC guys,” they told me.
“Get the car,” I said.
We made it back to Bishop’s Court in record time. ABC’s anchor, producer and crew were planted under a shady tree, which meant that if they’d arranged an exclusive Mandela interview, it hadn’t happened yet. We pulled our gear out of the trunk and set up camp nearby.
An hour later, Jesse Jackson, a prominent American civil rights leader, arrived in a motorcade and was escorted into the residence. During the scramble to get pictures of Jackson, I managed to slip into a side entrance of Bishop’s Court. I followed the sound of laughter and crowd noise down an empty hallway until I came to the door of a large reception room. I opened it and found myself in the middle of a raucous ANC Mandela freedom celebration.
The first person I spotted was Walter Sisulu, a legendary ANC freedom fighter who had spent years on Robben Island with Mandela in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. I’d interviewed him when he was released from prison a few months earlier, and he waved to me as I entered the room.
“Mr Sisulu, nice to see you again. This must be a great day for you…”
“Just wonderful! We’re all so happy… Have you met Nelson yet?”
“Well, no, I…”
Sisulu waved over my shoulder. “Nelson, come over here. Here’s a friend of mine from American television…” I turned and saw a smiling Nelson Mandela walking toward me. As he reached out to shake my hand I thought to myself, First rule of TV journalism: never go anywhere without your camera crew.
Two decades later, I can’t remember much of the substance of that conversation, but I do remember asking Mandela if he would consider doing an interview that evening with NBC News. He politely declined.
And as it turned out, no one got an exclusive.
Charles McLean is General Manager of Portland’s New York office.