Tribute Night

02.18.14

Bill Clinton: Nelson Mandela Was 'The Only Free Man I Ever Knew'

In a night of the anti-apartheid leader's favorite songs, a lifetime of photos, and his best speeches, former pal President Clinton and Morgan Freeman paid tribute to Mandela.

A memorial tribute concert doesn’t get into full swing until former President Bill Clinton reveals some practical jokes pulled by the deceased. And so it was on Thursday evening at the majestic Church of St. John the Apostle on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where a group of 100 or so had braved the piles of snow outside to gather for a tribute of late South African President Nelson Mandela.

In a night blending the anti-apartheid leader’s favorite songs, a lifetime of photos, and his best speeches, Oscar-winner and Mandela-impersonator Morgan Freeman, South African TV and radio host Gareth Cliff, and former President Clinton joined the Soweto Gospel Choir for what was called the first official international tribute since Mandela passed away at age 95 in December.

As the hosts moved through Mandela’s 27 years imprisonment—where he was allowed only one visitor a year and one letter every six months—and into his presidency, screens around the church filtered through photographs of Mandela’s life, and the remembrances were punctuated by echoing song. The colorfully outfitted and world-renown Soweto Gospel Choir, a favorite of Mandela’s, sang classics like “Asimbonanga,” a song written about the late leader, and the South African national anthem.

Morgan Freeman read a selection of Mandela’s most powerful speeches and insightful writings. The two first met in the 1990s, and developed a relationship that would lead to Freeman’s portrayal of Mandela in the 2009 film Invictus. “He was asked who he’d want to portray him and to my everlasting honor he mentioned me,” Freeman remembered.

Meanwhile, the Mandela Foundation’s CEO Sello Hatang recalled when Freeman came to screen Invictus for the late president. “Well that movie was very nice and Morgan Freeman did a good job,” he joked at the end, “but shouldn't he pay me for playing me?”

The event was hosted by CultureHorde, a New York-based private arts and culture club, and benefited the Nelson Mandela Foundation's Center for Memory. The club’s founder, Pamela Mirels, is a South African native whose family left the country as the apartheid system crumbled.

In remarks Mandela made upon his release from prison in 1990, Freeman read: “I stand here before you not as a prophet, but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands.”

“He freed an entire nation and in freeing a nation he changed the world. We lost a true giant of the 20th century, but in our loss is the realization that thanks to him we have all gained something,” Freeman said. “Madiba’s journey may be over, but his legacy continues to grow with us all.”

In trademark off-the-cuff style, the former president spoke reverently and humanizingly about the late leader, but first chided host Gareth Cliff for a Mandela impression so good it put Freeman’s to shame and intimidated Clinton from doing his own. “I'm already old and gray, and now I have to fit myself between gospel choir and the voice of god,” he joked after taking the mic. It was Clinton who made the first donation to the Mandela Foundation in the amount of $1 million.

‘He was asked who he’d want to portray him and to my everlasting honor he mentioned me,’ Freeman remembered.

Clinton didn’t hold back with his favorite Mandela memories, calling him the “only free man I ever knew,” but also revealing “disagreements, which, believe it or not, occasionally happened.” He spoke of waking up Chelsea late one night to watch Mandela’s release from prison, and how taken Mandela later was with his daughter, whom he continued to correspond with while she was at Oxford. “Chelsea, it’s not enough being smart,” he once told her.

“How did he go through all this and come out a better man than he went in?” Clinton wondered, remembering that he once asked Mandela: “Tell me the truth: When you were walking to freedom didn't you hate them again?”

“What I loved about him, because he was not saint of course, he said: ‘Of course I did, but I got over it in three seconds.’—He knew if he still hated them he would still be a prisoner.—‘I wanted to be free so I let it go.’”

But Mandela had a playful side, too, and Clinton didn’t shy away from revealing it.

“Madiba was always ragging me because it was my job when I was president to rag him about being friends with Gaddafi and Castro,” Clinton began.

So, at a charity auction hosted by the leader, he was told there was one item at the auction Mandela wanted him to bid on, and he would know it when he saw it. When a fine-quality Cuban rum came up for bids, Clinton realized the joke. “I think I paid $11,000 for that bottle of rum,” Clinton remembered laughing, even though he couldn’t bring back to the U.S. because of the embargo and “didn’t have the capacity to consume it all before returning.” He failed to say what he did with it. (The bottle had actually been gifted to Mandela by Fidel Castro.)

“Why am I telling you this?” he paused. Mandela's life, he said, tells us that "what we have in common is more important than interesting differences.” Clinton’s speech, in typical fashion, ranged from covering genetic discoveries, vocal ranges, and the Arab Spring.

“As a friend, Madiba was to people one-on-one the same way he was as leader to his adversaries who he put in government,” he said. “He lived as he governed.”

“We cannot allow his legacy, his memory, his meaning, to drift into the history books, to become a distant memory,” Clinton said. “He must be as real to people who never knew him, as real to children who cannot remember him, as real to grandchildren who are not yet born as he is to those of us who loved him.”

As the choir launched into their final song, Morgan Freeman climbed back on stage, dancing along to the music. If Mandela was there, Hatang from the Foundation had earlier joked, he’d be saying things like, “Very good, these ladies are doing a very good job,” and he’d be dancing in the audience.