Mandela: The long and the short of Sharansky’s LA encounter



It was on June 29, 1990 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles that the two former political prisoners came face to face.

The reserved, soft-spoken Nelson Mandela, released only four months earlier after 27 years in South African prisons, stood next to the bouncy Natan Sharansky, towering over the former refusenik from the Soviet Union by a good foot while photographers tried to get the two men’s faces into the same close-up frame.

Mandela had shown little sympathy for Israel in recent statements, but Israeli diplomats hoped that a meeting between the two ex-prisoners of conscience might mellow the South African’s attitude.

During the brief photo session, Mandela jokingly apologised for having to look down on his short friend. Sharansky responded that thanks to his diminutive stature, he was able to wrap the oversized prison clothes around his body during the cold Russian winters.

“Where I was, it was very hot,” was the comeback.

Mandela left immediately after the session to prepare for a rally at the Coliseum stadium. Sharansky later let it be known that his reminder that Israel had been among the first nations to denounce apartheid, had not changed Mandela’s position.

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