BAINBRIDGE, Ohio - When Nelson Mandela was released from a South African prison in 1990, Michael Benza was a law student at Case Western. What he remembers most he said was, "the recognition I think by everybody in the world that the change in South Africa was inevitable."
Benza was involved in civil and human rights movements while at Case and was approached in his third year of law school by one of his professors.
“He had connections to an agency in South Africa and offered me the opportunity to go and work there for a year,” he said.
The agency was the Legal Resources Center and it was run nationally by Arthur Chaskalson, who was a close friend of Mandela’s, who would later go on to be named by President Mandela as the first presiding judge of their country’s newly established Constitutional Court.
“He would come to our offices often,” said Benza of Mandela.
“He had a presence about him that no matter what you thought of his politics or his ideology or any of that, he just – you liked him and you wanted to work with him and you wanted to talk with him and he wanted to know what you were thinking and what did you want to see happen,” Benza recalled.
“That peace and that grace and that dignity carried through so that there was nothing anybody could do to stand against him.”
This was before Mandela would become president and even though everyone in the country knew that was inevitable, Mandela remained grounded.
“Everybody knew Mandela was going to win the election but even knowing that he never once took that for granted or used that as a way to say now we’re in charge.”
Benza said it was clear that whenever Mandela was around this young attorney from Ohio found himself around greatness. “You couldn’t help but notice that.”
“You see a person like him only come around once in a while,” he said. “You put him with somebody like Mother Teresa on the impact he had on the world just by being who he was.”
"You knew that he was doing this because it was the right thing to do."