Jesse Jackson left the Southern Sun Hotel in downtown Pretoria shortly after 3 a.m. Sunday, expecting it would take less than two hours to fly 541 miles to Qunu, where funeral services were being held for former South African President Nelson Mandela.
The first indication that it would take longer came when Jackson and his delegation arrived at the Waterkloof Air Force Base.
“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” he asked his driver. “This doesn’t look right.” It didn’t look right because Jackson had attended a ceremony at the air base on Saturday, just before Mandela’s remains were flow to Qunu for burial. But the previous ceremonies were in another section of this base, which accounted for Jackson’s unfamiliarity.
The group was greeted by Brig. Gen. Marthie Visser, a courtly White South African with a thick accent; she was eager to make sure Jackson got on the right plane.
The next plane out, she told him, would carry Deputy President Kgakma Petrus Motlanthe, Constitutional Court [Supreme Court] Justice Mogoeng Kourakis and former President Thabo Mbeki. She walked Jackson over to a desk where the two quickly examined a printout of the manifest and Jackson’s name was nowhere in sight.
That set off a flurry of calls by Jackson; his youngest son Yusef; Monica Morgan, a Detroit photographer, and James Gomez, his Director of International Affairs, who was still in the hotel. Frantic calls were placed to the trip’s local organizer by the younger Jackson and Gomez. And the organizer made a round of calls to high-ranking African National Congress (ANC) officials.
After Visser escorted Jackson and his companions to Lounge #3, an area used by VIPs, it was learned that an ANC official had not confirmed with the military the landing of a private plane that was supposed to carry Jackson and his party to Qunu. Unable to land, the plane was parked at another airport.
Visser called her superiors to get permission for Jackson and his delegation to tag along with Deputy President Motlanthe’s party. By this time, Chief Justice Kourakis walked into the lounge. He greeted Jackson warmly and the two exchanged laughter for about 15 minutes. However, when it was time for Kourakis to leave, he waved good-bye to Jackson and boarded the aircraft.
After seeing the two interact, I was convinced that we would be boarding the plane shortly. It turned out that I was both right and wrong. Gen. Visser escorted us to steps at the back of the plane, where we waited on the ground for her to board and get permission for us to enter.
“I have some terrible news,” she told Jackson. “The security people say you were not cleared for this flight and you can’t board.” Jackson asked her to speak directly to Deputy President Motlanthe and when she returned, the answer was the same – we couldn’t go.
“May I speak directly with the deputy president?” Jackson asked. Jackson did and when Visser returned, she flashed a thumbs up signal, meaning we, too, could board. When we entered, Jackson was sitting near Justice Koudrakis. His son, Yusef; Mogan and I quickly found seats. I had taken two sips of orange juice when the general reappeared.
“I am afraid I have more bad news,” she said, apologetically. “My general said no one can travel on this plane who has not been cleared. I am so sorry.”
Tired and embarrassed, we all departed, feeling this might be our only chance to reach Qunu by 9 a.m. At 6:15 a.m., Yusef walked over to me and said, “It looks like the window of opportunity is closing.” I replied, “It’s not closing, it’s closed – and locked tight.” Or, so I thought.
Amid all the frantic calls, Zweli Mkhize, the ANC Treasurer-General, whom we had met earlier in the week, called Minister of Defense Nosiviwe Mapisa-Ngakula and told her to fix the problem. “He said, ‘We don’t want all the bad press we would get if Rev. Jackson isn’t able to get to the funeral,’” a person familiar with the conversation relayed to me.
About 6: 30 a.m. – two and a half hours before the main segment of the funeral was scheduled to begin – we finally got some good news: The Air Force was dispatching an 8-seater Falcon 50 jet to take us to Qunu. Gen. Visser was ordered to accompany us and there would be a military escort waiting for us on the other end of the flight.
At 7:08 a.m., it was wheels up. We landed, were greeted by our military escort and had our own private police motorcade to the funeral. We entered the dome-like structure at 9:05 a.m., just as funeral proceedings were getting underway.
All I could do was shake my head in disbelief. That’s yet another reason to keep hope alive.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine, is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. Curry can be reached through his Web site, http://www.georgecurry.com. You can also follow him at http://www.twitter.com/currygeorge and George E. Curry Fan Page on Facebook.