One Man’s Journey from Anti-Apartheid Protestor to U.S. Ambassador

ABC News Nightline
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When President Obama and the First Lady touched down in South Africa, he was the first man to greet them. The face of the United States, in South Africa, Ambassador Patrick Gaspard.

For the past 48 hours, our top diplomat has given Nightline rare access to the whirlwind preparations, as the world pays tribute to Nelson Mandela.

His role: to express American grief in this time of mourning. And oh yeah, the monumental, and unprecedented task of welcoming four U.S. presidents and countless dignitaries.

Hard to imagine, just 25 years ago, he was actively working to bring down a government in South Africa.

Now he's the nation’s official representative here.

His morning begins on the phone, calling in to South African radio stations. Little could he have imagined, the journey those early protests would take him on.

Gaspard helped pull off Mandela's first U.S. visit, after Mandela's release from prison in 1990.

As a young staffer, he navigated the rough and tumble currents of New York City politics -- and later became a trusted aide to President Obama. His new gig as Ambassador, just a few months old.

But luckily, the territory is familiar. Like Soweto's Regina Mundi Church, where he first came as a young protester. This place was ground zero in the anti-apartheid struggle.

“This place had me then, I get goose bumps just thinking about that moment now,” recalled Gaspard. “This place had a lot of conflict, there were battles in the streets. It was not a safe time and to be here and I was just blown away.”

Back then, this house of worship, was the only safe place to gather since political meetings were banned in most public places. In 1976, it was a refuge during the student uprisings here.

“As police chased the youngsters into the church, one of the police officers, took his machine gun and went up there, and with the butt of the machine gun slammed it down and cracked the marble, and it broke the altar,” said Gaspard. “The church refused to repair it because they want to remember that day.”

But on this day, they're here to remember the man known by his tribal name, “Madiba.”

The Ambassador and his wife lead me to Mandela's House, now a museum.

“If you see the new film, Long Walk To Freedom, there are these scenes where the apartheid police would just drive by at night and they would just spray this home with bullets, just to intimidate and to send a message that they were watching,” said Gaspard. “There were kids in there. There were babies in there.”

It was here, that 23 years ago, we saw some of the first images of Mandela, finally free.

Outside Mandela's house, a combination of street party, demonstration and protest. A reminder that scars run deep.

Because there are still dire places like Atteridgeville, just a short drive from the capital, and in the shadow of where Mandela will lay.

No apartheid here, but also no clean water, no trash pickup, no proper power. Squatters like Archibald, his wife and five children, still waiting after 15 years, for a government home. Others like Martin, thankful for the opportunity Mandela's life brought: the ability to start up a small Internet cafe. The fear now is that Mandela's loss leaves no one left to fight for them.

Back at the U.S. embassy, just hours to go before the Memorial, one current, and three former presidents are on their way.

But before they arrive, Gaspard is still the official U.S. voice here.

It’s time for a quick visit to Pretoria's Union Building to check on logistics where Mandela will lie in state. The casket will lay in the very spot where Mandela took the presidential oath 20 years ago.

“I think this is going to rival the emotion of that remarkable day,” said Gaspard.

He stops to sign the official book of condolence, writing "God speed Madiba."

Back at his official residence, the ambassador acknowledges the tremendous weight of the hours and days ahead. Behind the scenes, aides are still working the phones, with last minute details.

The memorial honored the legacy of a man who inspired presidents, prime ministers and everyday people.

And one ambassador.

“I have a lot of emotion being here, right now,” said Gaspard. “I'm just super charged by the opportunity and all that's possible.”