Former Secretary of State, James Baker, on meeting Mandela a month after prison release

In 1990, then-Secretary of State James Baker was the first high-level American official to meet with Nelson Mandela after his release from prison. The two met during independence celebrations in nearby Namibia.  

Baker told the “CBS This Morning” co-hosts that when he met Mandela for the first time his impressions of him were that “he was a man of endearing and enduring dignity.”

“[Mandela] was very soft spoken, but very committed to the revolution that had been the focus of his adult life. I was also surprised quite frankly by the kind words he had for the last apartheid president of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk,” he said. “In that meeting I had of March of 1990, it occurred, as a matter of fact, at the independence celebration of the state government of the country of Namibia. Mandela said ‘I have read F.W. de Klerk's speeches and I feel like I am dealing with a man of integrity.’”

Baker said he wasn’t sure if Mandela had met de Klerk at that time, but explained that “the two of them worked together to achieve a peaceful transition of power in South Africa and the end of apartheid.”

In the past, Baker has compared Mandela to the founding fathers of the United States of America and he told the co-hosts that did that because he believes that he was “a man of that significant greatness.”

“I met with a lot of people during my tenure in public service and I met with none who deserve ... [the label] great any more than Nelson Mandela,” he said. “I think he was an icon of human rights. He was an icon of freedom. He was an icon of reconciliation and forgivness.”

Baker said that he was an “inordinately special type of leader” and that he was one of the few leaders in his memory that “made the successful transition from being a revolutionary to being a statesman.”

Baker also said that first meeting with Mandela started on contentious terms after he announced he would meet with then-President de Klerk. 

“The only discordant note in my meeting with Mandela … was that I was going to meet with de Klerk and of course Mandela had just gotten out of prison and he was disappointed that the American secretary of state would be meeting with the apartheid president of South Africa. He thought it was the wrong thing to do, but we were of the view that we could constructively engage with that president in order to encourage him to change and to in effect give up power.”

The former secretary of state also said that when he met with de Klerk, he said something to him that he believes he never said to anyone else.

“I went from Windhoek to Pretoria, met with F.W. de Klerk and at the end of our meeting he said ‘I’d like to have a private conversation with us’ and just the two of us went into a room. And he said ‘Mr. Secretary, I am going to be the last white president of South Africa,” said Baker. “I thought that it was a startling statement and he had not said that publicly before. He and Nelson Mandela worked to bring about peaceful change under the most difficult of circumstances.”