The most senior foreign ambassador in the U.S. had just returned to Washington from a trip when a reporter informed him that Nelson Mandela had died.
"Oh! What a tragedy! What a tragedy! What a tragedy!' exclaimed Ambassador Roble Olhaye of the African nation of Djibouti. "Deepest condolences to his family, South Africa and the world at large. Everybody will be deeply saddened. We wish him peace. God bless his soul."
Mr. Olhaye's despair was shared throughout Washington's diplomatic community, as ambassadors struggled to find words to express their grief over the death South Africa's first black president, who served 27 years in prison in his fight against apartheid.
The news struck hardest at the South African Embassy, where Ambassador Ebrahim Rasool recorded a message to his countrymen in the U.S.
"We meet with heavy hearts," he said. "This man who came out of prison liberated all of us from our inhumanity and from our worst selves."
Mr. Rasool announced that the Washington National Cathedral will hold a memorial service at 11 a.m. Wednesday. He urged those who want to attend to apply for tickets at saembassy.org.
The embassy, at 3051 Massachusetts Ave. NW, will hold open a book of condolences from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 to 8 p.m. through Tuesday.
The year was 1987. Nelson Mandela was in prison, and I was stepping off a plane in Johannesburg amid the dying whimpers of apartheid.
The policy of white-minority rule had kept blacks and other non-white South Africans as second-class citizens since 1948, when the descendants of Dutch settlers imposed the racial laws.
But conditions in South Africa's largest city showed cracks in the apartheid regime that would crumble by 1994.
Although Johannesburg was legally segregated, many white landlords broke the law by renting to blacks. In the posh Sun Tower Hotel, blacks and whites shared drinks at the bar, but blacks could not stay overnight.
I was one of several Washington Times editors and reporters on the trip, which took us to the crowded and violent black township of Soweto, where we passed row after row of slum housing. Our guides showed us a plush neighborhood of minimansions in the midst of the poverty, including one owned by Mr. Mandela's wife at the time, Winnie.
We also toured stunning Cape Town; the capital, Pretoria; the coastal city of Durban; and KwaZul, where we interviewed Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.
My thoughts often return to a walk around Johannesburg one night as a sign that things were changing. A colleague and I strolled into a black bar. No one took notice of the only two white men in the crowd. They were too busy dancing to music that had become controversial in the U.S.
A year earlier, in 1986, folk singer Paul Simon defied global bans on cultural exchanges with South Africa and traveled there to record an album with several black bands. They included Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a highly regarded choral group virtually unknown outside of South Africa until Mr. Simon's "Graceland" album helped give them worldwide fame.
As we left the bar, the sounds of one of the songs followed us:
"Joseph's face was black as night / The pale moon shone in his eyes / His path was marked by the stars / in the Southern Hemisphere/ And he walked his days / under African skies."
Foreign visitors in Washington this week include:
• Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister and minister of education of Malaysia; and Rosnani Hashim of the International Islamic University of Malaysia. They address the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
• Embassy Row is published on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. James Morrison can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @EmbassyRow.
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