Local leaders recall Mandela visit

Former Southern University President Leon Tarver remembers the time Nelson Mandela called him on the telephone.

It was in 2000, seven years after the two men had first met in South Africa, and Tarver was trying to get Mandela to visit Southern’s Baton Rouge campus.

Southern had been active in Africa around that time, sending researchers to African countries to talk about economic development, health care, clean water and any other subject local universities wanted addressed.

It was through these trips that Tarver became acquainted with Mandela’s personal physician, Dr. Ntatho Motlana. The two attended the 1999 Bayou Classic together, with Motlana as Tarver’s guest.

It was during that trip that the doctor agreed to hand-deliver a letter inviting the civil rights icon to Baton Rouge. But Mandela’s staff declined, citing the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s hectic schedule.

It was only after a personal plea from Motlana to reconsider that Mandela picked up the phone to assure Tarver he would make the trip.

“He felt sure that he could come and be with us,” Tarver, now a member of Southern’s Board of Supervisors said. He said he “came to honor the work Southern University was doing in Africa. When he said that, it was one of the greatest moments of my professional career.”

In May 2000, Mandela made the trip, spending four days in Baton Rouge, delivering a keynote address and receiving honorary degrees from both Southern and LSU. Southern also renamed its School of Public Policy after the leader.

“There are no words to capture the life and bravery of Nelson Mandela,” said Southern Chancellor James Llorens. “The world has lost the embodiment of courage and the commitment to the belief that freedom is worth giving one’s life.”

Just 10 years removed from the 27 years he spent in prison for fighting racial apartheid, the South African leader’s visit was tightly controlled. His security team nixed plans for him to be greeted at the airport with a marching band and a large crowd.

Instead, Mandela sneaked into town a day early, pausing to shake hands with people who just happened to be at the airport.

Tom Ed McHugh was mayor of Baton Rouge at the time. McHugh now heads the Louisiana Municipal Association.

McHugh said everyone in Baton Rouge wanted to meet Mandela. McHugh got to be in the same room as the leader, although they did not have a conversation. The encounter was short but memorable.

“He had a certain glow about him that made him seem — even though I didn’t know him personally — made him seem very warm, very caring. (He was a) man of great character,” McHugh said.

Former LSU President William Jenkins also spent time with Mandela during that four-day trip 13 years ago. On Thursday, the South African-born Jenkins said he remembers a man in his 80s who didn’t speak much in conversation but was still able to rouse crowds of several hundred people with his words.

Although Mandela was in town to visit Southern, Jenkins said his upbringing in South Africa and knowledge of the country’s struggle over civil rights, made it important that LSU also honor him.

“He had become an icon,” Jenkins said. “It was important to recognize what Nelson Mandela had done and what he had been through. We had great admiration for him.”

Tarver, on Thursday, recalled some of the private conversations he had with Mandela at University Place, the home on Southern’s campus reserved for the president. Mandela stayed there during his trip.

Tarver said Mandela was particularly fond of looking out over the Mississippi River at sunset.

“He told me how he’d always heard a lot about the river,” Tarver said. “He was particularly fascinated with the history of the river and how it once transported slaves from New Orleans to other parts of the country, and how Southern’s campus used to be a plantation.”

Tarver said he considers himself lucky to have spent time with a man known across the world as a humanitarian.

“He graced us with his presence. It was indeed an honor,” Tarver said. “Few men have had the impact on society as he has had across this world, in and out of Africa.”

Mandela’s larger-than-life persona wasn’t just felt in Baton Rouge.

Chef Dominique Macquet, who owns Dominique’s on Magazine in New Orleans, has cooked at the White House and on the Queen Elizabeth II ocean liner.

Yet it is a meal that Macquet prepared while working at a hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, that stands out in his mind. Mandela was one of the dinner guests.

He was sitting down to his first meal outside prison in more than two decades.

“This is one of my highlights of my career, cooking for an incredible human being like him,” Macquet said Thursday within hours of learning about Mandela’s death.

Mandela did not pick the menu that day in Cape Town. He was attending a hotel function with government officials and ate shrimp, kingklip — a popular fish in South Africa — and wild berries gratin.

In 2004, Macquet returned to South Africa, this time going to Mandela’s home as an invited cook for an event. Mandela did not sample the food. He had a speech that night to raise money for his son, who was dying of AIDS. However, Mandela made time to talk with Macquet, steering the conversation away from himself and to the chef’s family.

“For me, Nelson Mandela was an incredible human being who saved an entire nation from bloodshed,” Macquet said.