South African and Boston journalist Rory O’Connor recalls Nelson Mandela dancing with Ray Flynn
Barry Chin/Globe staff/file 1990
Like so many, documentary filmmaker Rory O’Connor was saddened by the news of Nelson Mandela’s death Thursday night. But the onetime Boston and South African journalist, former editor of the Real Paper and codirector of a little-seen film called “Mandela in America,” also had one memory that made him smile: The indelible image from June 23, 1990, of Mandela onstage at the Hatch Shell on Boston’s Esplanade flanked by Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Mayor Ray Flynn.
“Dancing onstage with Ray Flynn, while I was doing live commentary, that was a singular moment,” said O’Connor, whose career began as a reporter and producer at WGBH-TV and who later managed the weekly newsmagazines South Africa Now and Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television.
Mandela came to Boston after being released from prison because it was the first US city to officially oppose apartheid by imposing sanctions against any banks or companies that did business with the South African government.
In an e-mail to the Globe, O’Connor explained how he covered Mandela’s visit: “On the eve of his now fabled trip to United States in the summer of 1990, we went looking for financial support to make a documentary about what we believed would be an historic event. But to our surprise we met with little interest. Hardly anyone we spoke to seemed to share our feeling that the American public would be interested — especially the jaded executives of the American film and television industry we approached. One even asked if Mandela spoke English.”
He said he and his co-filmmaker Danny Schechter had no financing but they did land “exclusive behind-the-scenes access to Mandela throughout his 11-day, eight-city odyssey, which included hundreds of thousands dancing in celebration along with him on the banks of the river Charles.”
O’Connor said their film was eventually released as a 90-minute home video by a division of Atlantic Records. “Seeing Mandela dancing next to Ray Flynn,” he recalled with a chuckle, “was wild.”