BBC Reporter Recalls Connection To Nelson Mandela

Dec 9, 2013

Audrey Brown at work
Credit BBC

"This is amazing," Audrey Brown thought. She was on a boat, speeding to Robben Island, the prison that had held South Africa's most famous political prisoner for more than twenty-five years. And the man himself, Nelson Mandela, was sitting a few feet away. Though he was South Africa's President at the time, his thoughts were personal. He talked about the first time he arrived by boat to the prison. The water that day was choppy he said. He knew that day that he would not be released for years, if ever.

Brown made sure she kept a respectful distance, but she couldn't help but think about the story she would be able to tell someday. "And I just thought…I am going to Robben Island, my first trip to  Robben Island, and I am sitting within touching distance of Nelson Mandela. It suddenly just dawned on me, that this was one of those things that, you know, just doesn't happen in an ordinary day's work."

Audrey Brown is a long-time reporter. She grew up outside of Soweto in Kliptown. Her family was in the thick of South Africa's armed struggle against apartheid.  They hid banned books, organized and attended resistance meetings.

She always knew who  Nelson Mandela was, but  she says that the man everyone talked about was a mystery. Like so many others she saw him for the first time in February 1990 when he emerged into the South African summer sunlight after serving 27 years in prison.

"I was surprised at how sophisticated he was," Brown remembers. "How refined and how elegant. He was so unexpected. He was this entity that was so intact and so complete. It seemed like [he was] everything that we had hoped he would be. Everything that we yearned for a leader like Nelson Mandela to be, he was all those things, and a whole range of other things more that we hadn't even begun to think about."


Audrey Brown's first memory of the struggle for equality was June 16, 1976. The day would become known as the Soweto Uprising. High school students began demonstrating in the streets. It's estimated that 20,000 students took part in the protest.  It was the beginning of the time when blacks throughout South Africa refused to live as second class people. At the time, though, it was simply known as the day when 175 people, many of them children, were shot.

Brown was at home in Kliptown that day. She was eight or nine at the time. "I remember my uncle picking me up, and we were scrambling up a ladder to get onto the roof of my grandfather's house so we could see what was happening in Soweto." The two looked west. It was cold out and it was misty from the fires that had been lit in the late afternoon for warmth. Brown particularly remembers the sting of tear gas on her face and in her eyes.

From then on, Audrey Brown made sure to participate in the fight to end apartheid. Though she was young, she did what she could. She was arrested at fourteen, but she kept up her activism. "Politics and the struggle for apartheid permeated my childhood."

Years later, it was becoming clear that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison.

Audrey Brown says when the news was finally announced, it was like a thunderclap. Somehow, everyone felt unprepared.

"I so remember just the sense of just expectation and exaltation. There was such immeasurable joy. What would he look like what would he be like? What will happen next? This is the most incredible thing."

Everyone she knew was trading drawings of what they thought Nelson Mandela would look like because he had been sturdy, even slightly plump, when he entered prison. "And he came out and he was this tall, very slim man, you know? Totally different than what we imagined he would like, I think."

A few days after Mandela was released from prison, he came to Kliptown. Audrey Brown was there as a newspaper reporter.  She noticed that Mandela was looking around a lot, nodding his head, trying to catch people's eyes.

"I think I got swept up as everybody else did, and sort of shook his hand. And I don't think I made a fool of myself and tried to hug him. He has a sense of physical dignity that you don't breach," she says. Mandela took a moment to connect with Audrey Brown. He asked about different people Brown might know in Kliptown.  It was clear Mandela knew her neighbors, even her own grandmother. He asked, 'How is Vesta? How is she?" Brown recalls. They stood and made small talk for a moment, even as hundreds of people were pressing in.

When the conversation ended, Brown stepped back into reporter mode, and assessed Mandela. She noted that he did not look at all weary from his time in incarceration. Rather, he looked the opposite.  Sophisticated. Refined. Elegant. 

"Everything about him was so new. He was so unexpected, even though we didn't know much about him...he was still just this entity that was so intact, and so complete. I saw the kind of nobility of his humbleness."

She was struck by the way Nelson Mandela had of making personal connections. It was a skill that would serve him well in politics. Four years later, he was elected President of the country. Even so, whenever she saw Mandela over the years, Audrey Brown says that he would always connect her to Kliptown, and to her friends, and neighbors and grandparents.

Audrey Brown talked with Dick Gordon.