It was 1998. I remember it happening like this.
A woman friend and I weren’t sure about having lunch at what was a non-descript, although decent looking, roadside diner/restaurant we happened to be driving by. It sat just outside of Swellendam, near Cape Town, South Africa.
It was a sunny, warm day. We pulled in, parked and started to amble to the restaurant door. Even as we walked towards the building we were still unsure if it was where we wanted to eat; but the parking lot was pretty full, and the place seemed to be buzzing. We shrugged, it would probably do.
Out of the corner of an eye, I spotted a man and a woman walking slowly side by side to the entrance from their car. I thought: I know him? He looks familiar?
Then who he was hit me. “We’re definitely eating here,” I declared.
We got inside the restaurant first, and were seated. We watched the door. As the couple came inside moments later, I looked at the staff – the shock, the smiles, the minor frenzy. The reaction from all the diners I could see – white and black alike – seemed to be pleasant surprise at his being here.
I noticed him interact with the greeter in gentlemanly fashion as she led them to a table. By dumb luck it was right next to ours. And that was within easy chatting distance.
Sitting less than six feet away from us was the former (last white) president of South Africa, FW de Klerk, and his then girlfriend (a Greek who is now his wife).
Not a security guy was in sight either.
He nodded to nearby diners offering hellos. He looked toward me and we made eye contact. I reacted with a bland, “Hello, Mr. President.”
He must’ve caught my accent. With a light grin, he replied dryly as they fired up cigarettes, “You’re not from ere, eh?”
“No, I’m not,” I smiled back.
As they studied menus, a white woman (I’d say she was in her 40s) was suddenly standing next to their table. She addressed him respectfully in Afrikaans (which my South African friend translated), “Thank you for saving our country,” and took his hand. He shook hands with her graciously, let go, and after she walked off looked down at his menu once more.
After the initial burst of interest, other diners left them alone to settle down to their meal. We stayed planted at our table until after he and his girlfriend had left. As we walked outside to the car, I joked, “Now, I just have to bump into President Mandela.” (I never “managed” that.)
We’ve seen reconciliation in South Africa, led by that now late Nelson Mandela. Here in the United Kingdom, we’ve seen difficult, but ultimately successful negotiations to end “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland. And we all know we’ve seen Germany and France – after centuries of conflict and often industrial-scale killing on an incomprehensible scale – become closest of allies and even friends.
There was a time no one had imagined any of that having been possible.
We have elected, and re-elected, a man of African-American heritage president of our United States – a country in which African-Americans make up barely 12 percent of the total population, and which saw as recently as 60 years ago whole stretches of the country where an African-American couldn’t sit at a lunch counter. One winning the presidency was the stuff of sheer fantasy.
Yesterday was the observation in the U.S. of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday. Remembering him leads us to recall that while there will always remain divisions and even hatreds arising among us, that they can also be bridged.
It’s easy to work people up. To hate. To fight.
It’s far tougher calming the storm. To change. Inherited, seemingly interminable, entrenched conflicts can be ended.
De Klerk did not begin his public career as a “reformer.” For decades he had been a standard cog in “the machine.” There was nothing outwardly to indicate he would be much different from others who’d come before him – until he rose to the top. Not everyone is happy about it of course (and some are downright angered by it), but the city of Cape Town has just decided to rename a major road “FW de Klerk Boulevard.”
There are millions of good people in southwestern Asia. There must be some little-known (as of yet) leaders among them possessing the breadth of vision and determination to stop yet another generation from despising and butchering each other? Surely there must be?
I suppose I’m just thinking out loud. Dangerous to do that on the web, I know. Have a good day, wherever you are reading this.