• Mandela’s Death Sparks Memories for Cameraman

    By Marge Ann Jameson

    The year was 1989. Bob Pacelli was a television cameraman, an unsure occupation in which the competition was fierce and huge news organizations jostled for footage. He’d worked with a number of Bay Area television stations, including KRON and a local Spanish-language station. It was a close-knit fraternity. He had worked with a woman named Savannah Foa, who called him in Pacific Grove one day and asked if he would be interested in a job with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).

    He was on his way to Geneva, Switzerland.

    “One day I’m buying groceries at Grove Market, and three days later I have a UN passport and I’m in Geneva,” Pacelli recalls. He left his wife, Clemencia, in Pacific Grove to pack their things for the move.

    His first assignment with the UNHCR was to document the repatriation of hundreds of South African people who lived in refugee camps in Tanzania and Kenya. It had been attempted – unsuccessfully — earlier to return refugees to South Africa, people whose fight against oppression, racism and worse fomented by the apartheid government had resulted in their being labeled as criminals. Some faced prison and worse if they returned. But this time, the UNHCR had a plan: On board were to be children who had been born in the camps and had lived there all their lives, some of them as old as 27 years. They had no criminal records for subversion or violence and had a better chance of not being turned away at Johannesburg. A foot in the door, so to speak.

    Apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa. Bowing to internal and external political and economic pressure, the codified oppression of black natives and colored people was crumbling, but not without fierce resistance on the part of many white citizens of South Africa. A worldwide boycott of South African goods and services and the refusal of major companies to do business there was having a crippling effect on the South African economy and was weakening the government. But it would be two more years before apartheid laws were repealed and it was not until 1993 that a multiracial transitional government was approved, and another year (1994) before elections were held.

    And what to do with these refugees?

    Pacelli was handed a UN passport and a manifest, and was flown to Tanzania with his huge and heavy Beta camera and related equipment. He was shuttled to a rickety 707 and he started filming. The plane quickly filled with refugees and their meager belongings, and they were airborne for the four-hour flight to Johannesburg.

    Pacelli worked his way forward to the cockpit and was unsettled to see wires hanging from the controls. He asked the pilot if he had ever made the flight before and if he was confident they’d make it. The pilot answered that he’d made the flight but had been refused landing. But this time he had a plan. They only had enough fuel to make it to Johannesburg and could not be turned away.

    Winnie Mandela was the darling of the anti-apartheid movement. Brave and outspoken, the wife of jailed ANC president Nelson Mandela found herself in a leadership position during her husband’s incarceration. She had been jailed for the cause herself, and later would serve in various positions in the transition government and the post-apartheid government. She was more of a firebrand than was Nelson, and traveled with bodyguards. This was a time before serious, criminal accusations overtook her, too.

    When the refugee plane arrived in Johannesburg, Pacelli – the lowly cameraman – was sent off the plane first and was handed the paperwork for the passengers. He found himself the sole representative of the UN and tasked with getting them through customs. He rolled the film.

    After a few battles with airport authorities, he handed in his paperwork and, continuing to film, found himself walking backward and filming, the iconic action of many news camerapeople. He kicked open a door behind him, backed through it, and tumbled over none other than Winnie Mandela, who caught him in her arms. Everyone apologized and dusted themselves off and Pacelli continued his assignment, none the worse for wear.

    Later, he said, he had to “file” the film in two versions – one with the natural sound track and one with his voiceover, explaining the action in the film. And it was his and Clemencia’s wedding anniversary, Dec. 12. The phone calls to Geneva and to Pacific Grove had to be routed through Kenya because of the boycott.

    Fast forward to October, 1999. Pacelli has worked for the UNHRC on projects in Eritrea, Somalia and Sarajevo. He has filmed Southeast Asian refugees and boat people. He’s back on American soil.

    Mrs. Mandela has been divorced from Nelson Mandela. She was a member of the South African Parliament and was President of the African National Congress Women’s League. Inspired by an Internet project which would pair Richmond, California children with their South African counterparts, she came to San Francisco to meet with then-mayor Willie Brown and religious leaders including Louis Farrakhan. Pacelli was assigned by a Bay Area TV station to film the event. Camera people and reporters jostled for position, each trying to get close to her. As the cadre of cameramen crowded around her, Pacelli lowered his camera and asked, “Do you remember me? Johannesburg, 1989? I tripped over you…”

    Recognition came over her face and she “planted a huge smacker on me.” said Pacelli. “From then on I was the king of the newspeople.” At least for the day.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    posted to Cedar Street Times on December 13, 2013

    Topics: Features, Front PG News

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