It was Matthew Willman’s job to document Nelson Mandela’s face and mood at key moments in the last decade of his life. Yet, as he framed image after image, he found himself repeatedly drawn more to the power of Mandela's hands — their unspoken language of reconciliation and peace.
“I’ve learned a huge lesson about following a dream,” said Willman, a commissioned photographer for the Nelson Mandela Foundation. “Yes, have a goal, have a dream, but it’s not always reaching the goal that makes it worth it. It’s the journey to it. That’s what it was with Mandela.”
Willman was a young man when Mandela was elected president. He saw hope at the historic crossroads that filled many other white South Africans with fear.
"The heart and soul of South Africa is about reconciliation," Willman said. "Whoever you are, whatever traditional heritage or background, we are reconciled through a man like Mandela. No, he wasn’t the be-all and end-all. But he set the bar high.”
A year after Mandela’s death, the 35-year-old Willman marvels at his good fortune — invited behind the curtain by a giant of history, and trusted to stay. But his road to the anti-apartheid hero’s inner circle didn’t come easy. Willman made countless attempts to reach Mandela. It was the 18 months he spent living on and photographing Robben Island, where Mandela spent 18 of his 27 prison years, that eventually caught the attention of the Mandela Foundation — and ultimately became the backbone of a 10-year project of creating the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory in Johannesburg.
In October, Willman spoke at the One Young World Summit in Dublin, Ireland. The summit, founded with the mission of finding the next Mandela, annually brings together young leaders representing 190 countries. America Tonight caught up with Willman to talk about Mandela, the private man behind the public persona. Questions and answers are edited for clarity.
You were 14 years old when Mandela was elected president of South Africa. Tell me about that time and how it ultimately led you to him.
As a young boy, you look to heroes. For me, it was Nelson Mandela. I didn’t know his politics. I didn’t know anything outside of the grandfather figure I saw. People were running away; I ran to it. It wasn’t just running to Mandela. It was running to the problems – going into the townships, going into the rural areas, ensuring that I, as a young South African, was identifying with this country.
What was it like when you finally did get to meet Mandela?
People say, "Where were you on 9/11? Where were you the day man walked on the moon?" The 13th of August 2004 was an extraordinary day. It was a day I dreamt of for nine and a half years. Mandela, the global icon, the statesman, the man who transcended boundaries, and here I was, a little boy from a town on the east coast 600 kilometers away from him with this dream to meet him. Little did I know that the first meeting would transpire into an incredible journey with him and with the Mandela Foundation.
I was so nervous. We give Mandela many honorary titles. We can call him Khulu. We can call him Dalibhunga, or Madiba. These are honorary words that we use in his culture. Because he’s an elder in the community and he’s of royal lineage, we can call him these names. So I had in my head all the time, what will I call this man? Mr. Mandela? No, too formal. We know he’s too friendly for that. Will I call him Nelson? Never. Only Queen Elizabeth II had the privilege of calling him Nelson. And he called her Elizabeth.