Peals of thunder rolled across a pewter sky. Clouds
confused whether to drop rain or scud to the Alps.
The frost-haired man, frail from nearly three decades
of incarceration, gait unsteady, walked along
the carpeted aisle. A smile erupted on Nelson Mandela’s
face as ovation rocked the auditorium of the Palais
du Nations in Geneva during the 1990 International
Labor Conference with delegates from some 150 countries.
Only four months before, the anti-apartheid South
African leaders was released from the Robben Island
prison. After the applause faded and he stood
at the podium, something startling happened:
Suddenly, the skylight above the crowded hall, dark
until now, glowed with sunlight, flooding everything.
The rays of light symbolized Mandela’s long journey
from the darkness and gloom of 27 years in jail.
From the balcony, I scribbled notes as if I’d seen
a miracle. I was editor of a journal on international labor issues
covering the proceedings in which he praised
the delegates for strongly supporting his release
from prison. Mandela’s voice roared, “Let us walk
the last mile together. . . . Let us turn to reality
the glorious vision of a South Africa free of racism,
free of racial antagonisms among our people…
no longer skunk of the world.” As delegates
and spectators streamed from the hall,
the skylight glowed like a lode of gold.
Donald Smyth is a Maryland-based poet whose work has appeared in The Progressive.
Photo: Wikimedia commons.