Cameraman Eugene McVeigh, who has completed hundreds of assignments in the world’s most dangerous political hotspots, filmed the great man over a period of weeks in 1994, following him on the campaign trail and in meetings with supporters and civil rights leaders.
As such he had a special insight into the anti-apartheid icon’s life and personality. In fact, the experience was to have a life-changing effect on the Donaghmore man who has experienced personal tragedy himself.
At the time Eugene, whose filming has been nominated for an Emmy award, was shooting a documentary for the Public Broadcasting Service in the US, as well as sending back daily news updates.
“Nelson was always a hero to me”, said Eugene. “I remember where I was when he was being released from Robben Island prison. It was like a Kennedy moment, so I knew that filming him was going to be a remarkable experience.
“I regard it as the greatest privilege of my professional life to have met him. More than anything else, his compassion and humility were an inspiration to me, just as it was to countless millions.
“He helped shape my response to personal tragedy and in particular the disappearance of my brother Columba at the hands of the IRA.
“I found myself agreeing with his philosophy, one which was borne out of a great deal of courage and character.”
Eugene remembered one night in particular, when Nelson was attending a special celebration at the Carleton Hotel.
“The room was filled with anti-apartheid campaigners and politicians as well as supporters, and the atmosphere was electric.
“However, when Nelson walked in to all the cheers, he looked mesmerised and overwhelmed by the support.
“During the filming of the documentary, and the nightly news pieces, I was always struck by how gracious and humble he was.
“Here was a man who had faced the death penalty, and spent a substantial part of his life in jail, and if he had left prison full of hate and revenge, many people would have felt he was entitled to those feelings. “However, he took the opposite path and offered the promise of peace and reconciliation to his former enemies.
“As such he is a great example to Northern Ireland, and if we are to go down the road that he took South Africa, we have to remember that healing the past is not just about truth, it is also about reconciliation, and we have to take a long hard look at ourselves before we are able to make a similar journey.
“I hope that his legacy will live on and continue to inspire millions around the globe.”