NYACK, N.Y. — As heads of state — including President Barack Obama and former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — prepare for Tuesday's memorial for former South African President Nelson Mandela, it doesn't take much for John Daniszewski to turn his thoughts to the days that brought Mandela to power.
From 1993 to 1996, Nyack, N.Y., resident Daniszewski led The Associated Press' coverage of South Africa, including Mandela's election and the end of the apartheid policy of racial segregation. He is now vice president and senior managing editor for international news at the New York-based news organization and serves on the Pulitzer Prize board.
When Daniszewski arrived in South Africa in 1993, the nation's future was still in question, with infighting between the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party and Mandela's African National Congress vying for power in the vacuum created by the nation's first all-race elections.
"There was a lot of turmoil and township violence and one of our photographers was killed in that violence shortly after I arrived," he said. "There was a lot of fear that it would all end in a bloodbath and there were people on both sides who were pulling it in those directions."
From that environment emerged Mandela's historic run for office, just a few years removed from the prison at Robben Island, where he was jailed for 27 years and became the face of the struggle against racial inequality.
"Covering the election was a really heady experience, traveling around the country with Mandela, going from township to township, and what it was like to see that sort of awakening of democratic hope that was taking place," Daniszewski said. "At first people couldn't believe it, that after generations of being treated as second- or really third-class citizens, they would have actual freedom."
Seeing the outpouring of grief in South Africa in recent days — people dancing to release their emotion at Mandela's passing — brought the editor back to that long-ago campaign and dances of joy he saw as Mandela reached out for support. Everything about those days was a revelation, from the sight of Mandela's inauguration to the unveiling of the nation's new flag.
"In spite of the violence and the fearful nature of covering the country, it was all on top of this atmosphere of new possibilities. It was definitely one of the assignments where you felt like you were a witness to history."
While the journalist does not want to canonize Mandela — "he was a human being," he said — Daniszewski conceded "there was something about him and the way people responded to him, that was unique."
Part of his aura came, he said, from the fact that he emerged from Robben Island "with grace and presence and magnanimity."
"You're always looking at him and wondering, 'How could he be this way?' There was something about him that made you want to understand that, and get a little of that."
Daniszewski said South Africans look at this week — from Tuesday's memorial in a vast Johannesburg soccer stadium to three days of lying in state in Pretoria to Sunday's funeral in Mandela's hometown — as a long farewell to a founding father, akin to Americans burying George Washington.
"South Africans feel he is the father of their country," he said.