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‘A Sinner Who Keeps On Trying’: Ambassador Relives Moment That Led To Mandela’s Famous Quote In Houston

As Nelson Mandela will be put to his final rest on Sunday, there’s much talk here in Houston about his two visits to the bayou city. Here’s how one distinguished Houstonian remembers Mandela’s visit to Rice University in 1999.


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It was the only time he met the former South African leader, but it was an experience that made a big impact on Ambassador Edward Djerejian, the founding director of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

“It was an exceptional day. An exceptional day for Rice University, the Baker Institute and for Houston.”

Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian
Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian

He says about 6,500 people packed Rice’s basketball arena, including high school students who were bused in from all over the city.

There was a question and answer period at the end of Mandela’s speech and Djerejian picked 10 written audience questions from about 500.

One of those questions prompted an answer that has been quoted again and again.

“‘Mr. Mandela, I’m a 12th-grader. I would really like to know who you really are and what you think history will say of you.’ It’s quite a youthful, incisive question, you know. So I asked this question and I looked over and Mandela had this famous twinkle in his eye, you know, he was looking at me while I read the question.”

Mandela’s answer is memorialized in a video tribute the Baker Institute produced on the occasion of his death:

“I am an ordinary human being with weaknesses, some of them fundamental, and I’ve made many mistakes in my life. I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.”

“That brought the whole house down. I mean it was standing ovation when he said that.”

As a diplomat who has served under each president from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton, Djerejian has met many world leaders. But he says Mandela had abilities many other leaders lack.

“This wonderful ability to listen to whoever he is talking to and not just, you know, look at someone’s face and make believe you’re listening but he actually listens to everyone. Which is, again, another reason, I think, why he’s a great leader, because he did listen to the other. And many times, our political leaders, or even, you could look at the corporate world, executive leaders. If you’re really not listening to the other, you’re going to be much less effective in your leadership role.”

He says Mandela’s legacy is showing the world that reconciliation is possible. Mandela famously forgave the people who imprisoned him, which Djerejian calls “one of the most radical political statements” ever.

“Look at our politics in Washington today. The lack of bipartisanship. The inability of our elected leaders to really extend in a meaningful way a hand of reconciliation to get things done. So what this man represents is truly so important to local, national and global politics.”

On Saturday, Dec. 14, at 3 p.m., Houstonians are invited to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela at the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Mandela will be buried in South Africa on Sunday.