Our Meeting with Nelson Mandela


April 1994 was an exciting time in South Africa.

Nelson Mandela was campaigning to become the first black president of South Africa. My wife, Andrea Peyser, had been assigned to cover the election by the New York Post, and I was hired to accompany her to photograph the historical campaign.

This was the very early days of the use of digital technology. I had purchased my first laptop and film scanner, taking them along to the African continent with the purpose of providing instantaneous reportage using the first international Internet service, Compuserve, to send images back to New York. This was revolutionary.

Our trip was a combination of old and new technology. Cell phones were not common place, beepers ruled, and instant communication was far in the future.

Traveling to South Africa was easier in 1994 than our first journey there in 1991, when sanctions did not allow direct flights. But it was still a different time. There was no communication back to New York until we landed in South Africa, found a pay phone, and placed a collect call back to the New York Post.

We had been on the plane for almost 24 hours and had no updates on Mandela’s schedule. We were told we needed to be in Durban, South Africa’s third largest city and the largest city in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

After the long plane flight, we were now looking at a seven-hour drive on roads we had never traveled, with no GPS, and a map provided by the car rental location. Also, South Africa follows the road rules of England, so I immediately had to learn to drive on the wrong side of the road. Plus it was nearly midnight when we left. Mandela would appear at a hotel in Durban at 8am and then travel to a Durban township.

Arriving tired and disheveled, we walked into the lobby of the hotel and Andrea nearly bumped into the man himself. It was one of those moments that is forever emblazoned in memory. Without hesitation, Andrea fell into step with the candidate, quickly introducing herself and firing off a blaze of questions. He was ever so charming and the total politician, deflecting her questions to a scheduled press conference later that day.

We followed him that day as he campaigned throughout the region. As his open air motorcade traversed through the streets, thousands of supporters trapped me against the side of his car, forcing me to walk alongside and giving me some of the best images I would capture during the entire campaign.

Over the course of the next three weeks, we witnessed black and white people celebrating together, white supremacists who wouldn’t give up, and the pride of the people who were able to vote for the first time in their lives.

Nelson Mandela had a vision for South Africa, that a great country can only succeed if people of all races work together.