The message from the State Department was brief and to the point. It said simply “Nelson Mandela arriving Bamako by flight No. –You are hereby directed to meet him and extend all courtesies.” That in diplomatic official language meant that I was authorized to do everything to make his visit a success. The message was signed by Deputy Secretary of State Ernest Eastman.
First, I must confess that although I knew the role that Liberia was playing in the African freedom struggle and all the independence movements of the early 1960’s, I did not know Nelson Mandela. I knew he was South African. I duly acknowledged the message from the State Department and was further informed by the Deputy Secretary of State Ernest Eastman that Nelson Mandela did not speak French and I would be his guide and interpreter.
Mali, at the time was under the regime of President Modibo Keita. My role in Mali at the time was to open a Liberian Embassy for the up-coming State Visit of President Tubman to President Modibo Keita. I discovered that there were no houses to be leased or rented in Bamako and the State Department had given me the go-ahead to construct and build an Embassy from scratch. I was in the middle of doing that when I received the message about Nelson Mandela.
I met Mr. Mandela’s plane and we began a series of meetings with various Malian Ministers. Our meeting with President Keita was quite brief and altogether he did not stay in Bamako for more than a week. I took him to the airport for his departure. The plane was delayed and we sat in my car for a protracted period of time and had time to talk. He taught me the correct pronunciation for the word “apartheid.” He told me that it is pronounced as “apart-hate.” Just before he boarded the plane he said to me, “Lafayette, South Africa is a very beautiful country except for that God-damned apartheid.”
We had talked mainly about the African struggle at the time and I must say that I was so distracted by my own pressing Embassy obligations that I was somewhat anxious to rid myself of the “visiting fireman” even though I had been impressed enough to ask him to give me his autograph which he wrote in a book I had with me in the car at the time. “To my friend, Lafayette Diggs.” Many years later when I was assigned to Kenya, I showed the book to Ambassador Henry Fahnbulleh, who saw the signature and took the book from me. He never returned it.
When I saw Nelson Mandela off that afternoon I had no idea that he would be in prison in a few months. Liberia, at the time under President Tubman was involved in the independence struggle everywhere on the African continent. Together with Ethiopia we took on the rest of the world on the question of South West Africa and nearly won freedom for that country while Nelson Mandela was still in Robben Island prison.
President Tubman died in 1971 but his successor, President William Tolbert, continued the struggle unabated. Liberia supported all of the liberation movements without discrimination. I was sent to South Africa on several missions. South Africa at the time was struggling with worldwide condemnation of the system of “apartheid.” One of my missions involved a clandestine errand to the PAC, the opposition liberation movement to the ANC. I was able to see the country and people at first hand and confirm what Nelson Mandela had said to me at the airport in Bamako. South Africa is a beautiful country and the people both white and black are wonderful and gracious.
During one of my missions to South Africa I was given the status of “honorary white” and kept on the “white” side of the fence separating the two races at the airport. I still remember the look of consternation of the two black female sweepers on the other side of the fence when they saw me standing there on the “white” side. I completed my mission which involved a meeting in Maseru, Lesotho and returned to Liberia