Union leader remembers Mandela

GRAND RAPIDS — Ten days after his death, Nelson Mandela was laid to rest at his ancestral homeland on Sunday.

While South Africans, world leaders and others met in South Africa to celebrate the life of the anti-apartheid leader and the county’s first black president, Owen Bieber remembered the man he describes as a “warm individual” from his home in Michigan.

Although Bieber lives in the Grand Rapids area, he has a cottage on Big Star Lake near Baldwin. As the president of the United Auto Workers from 1983 to 1995, Bieber spent time in South Africa both for the United States government and as a union activist.

Even before visiting South Africa, Bieber was outspoken against the Apartheid government and was arrested in Washington D.C. for protesting outside of the South African Embassy.

In 1987, Bieber traveled to South Africa as part of a boycott campaign against Shell Oil Company, which worked closely with the Apartheid government, Bieber said. While in the country, Bieber met Moses Mayekiso, a South African trade union leader.

Mayekiso would later be arrested in connection with a different boycott he helped organized and was charged with treason and sedition. Treason was punishable by death

When Bieber returned to South Africa at another time, it was as a representative of the U.S. State Department. While in the country, he interviewed several government officials, one of whom was the director of the prision system.

“When I met with the director of the prison system, I sort of set him up in a way,” Bieber said. “I said, ‘I understand you are in charge of all the penal institution in the country.’ He began to pump up like an inner tube. … I said, ‘Well I would like to ask you for a favor.’ He said, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘I would like to see my friend Moses Mayekiso.’”

The director denied the request because it wasn’t in his jurisdiction. Bieber then asked to meet with Mandela. Again, his request was denied, but only because Bieber was leaving the country that same day.

“I said, ‘I would be happy to change my schedule if you will give me the opportunity to meet with Mr. Mandela,’” Bieber said.

However, his request remained denied.

In the years to follow, Mayekiso would eventually be released from prison, and Mandela would be released shortly thereafter.

As a free man, Mandela traveled to Detroit where he was greeted by Bieber and then Mayor Coleman Young. Mandela was to speak at Briggs Stadium, but before he did, Bieber spent time with him and presented him with a UAW jacket.

“I remember he said, ‘Now I am a member of the UAW,’” Bieber said. “When we got to the stadium that night, there were 50,000 people there.”

When Mandela was elected president, Bieber was invited to his inauguration but could not attend.

Although Bieber only spent personal time with Mandela during his Detroit visit, the “warm individual” made a lasting impression on him.

“(Mandela) was a very, very humble, decent man,” Bieber said. “I have said to other people, ‘He was the sort of guy you would be happy to have as a neighbor.’”