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Pat Piper has made a career learning something new. As a journalist in the news business, “something new” occurs every hour so he’s becoming an expert at understanding stuff he never thought about. Learning became a common word in “Future Talk: Conversations About Tomorrow” (Warner Books), the popular book he ghostwrote with Larry King as […]

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December 6, 2013

By on February 12, 2014 in See It Here, The Way I See It, Writing

In 1990, just as news was breaking about the release of Nelson Mandela from a South African prison after 27 years for trying to overthrow a government that recognized apartheid, I interviewed Piet Koornhof, South Africa’s Ambassador to the United States.

“Does he have a role in government?” I asked.

“That is up to the people who elect,” Koornhof replied.

In other words, the ambassador wasn’t willing to accept the fact this black man could hold any role in government. I remember a single feeling while we were talking: here are two white guys discussing how a black man should live in a country that is 74% black and 14% white. I remember too, the engineer for the radio interview was black. The ambassador greeted him with a firm handshake, said to make yourself comfortable and then never looked at him again. As we were driving back to the network along Massachusetts Avenue in Washington DC, the street where most of the embassies are located, our conversation wasn’t about what Ambassador Koornhof said, but about what he wouldn’t say.

I later learned the ambassador was living with the black woman who was his secretary during his term in the embassy. We are always talking about going beyond words with deeds but here the ambassador couldn’t use the words. Had he done so, he’d have been thrown out of his job.

One more thought about Nelson Mandela: when he was inaugurated as president in 1994, the guards from Robbin Prison were invited. “If you want to make peace with you enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner,” Mandela wrote in 1995.

Members of Congress who are forever pointing fingers at eachother in press conferences would do well to get beyond the words they use, and instead, listen to the words of Nelson Mandela, who I’m sure they’re all going to be praising over the next few days.

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