A local broadcaster who worked in South Africa during the apartheid era calls the late Nelson Mandela the “moral compass for a nation.”
Glenn Hicks, news director of 103.5 The Bridge and Mountain FM, met the former president a couple of times in social settings while a national TV anchor with the South African Broadcasting Corporation.
“It was extraordinary when you got to shake his hand and look him in the eye,” Hicks says. “He had an aura of calm and stability that downplayed the huge significance of this former freedom fighter becoming the first freely-elected president of a truly multiracial South Africa.”
Hicks first met the man affectionately known as Madiba at a state dinner. Later, in 1996, he and wife Jane were among the many guests at Mandela’s 80th birthday party. In a room full of stars like Michael Jackson, Danny Glover, and Stevie Wonder, Mandela outshone them all. “They were absolutely in awe of him,” Hicks says.
Under apartheid, as an employee of the state broadcaster, Hicks was forbidden from mentioning the African National Congress on air unless it was prefaced with the word “banned.”
The country’s white minority knew little about Mandela, he says. “He was just some guy who had been locked away 20 or 30 years earlier. The rest of the world knew an awful lot more about him and his significance.”
But there was a “genuine positive buzz” following rumblings that Mandela would be set free after 27 years in prison.
“Everybody, white and black, watched live on TV when he was released and in the following days the fantastic speech he made,” Hicks says. “The atmosphere was incredible euphoria.”
Some worried the country might devolve into chaos, but “from the moment you saw Mandela speak and the way he conducted himself, you knew this country had a chance … Mandela oversaw a remarkably bloodless period for what was a fundamentally huge change for South African society.”
Hicks says Mandela’s incarceration was symbolic of the oppression of the nation’s black majority, and upon his release, he had to carry their hopes and dreams while assuring the white ruling class it would not involve violence.
Despite any behind-the-scenes power plays, Mandela remained a guiding, stabilizing influence, Hicks says, at a time when “things could have gone pretty horribly wrong. He was the moral rock for all of us. It was an absolute pleasure to watch and be in the same room on occasion with him.”