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Actress lives life inspired by Mandela

By Natalie Angley, CNN
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Actress Alfre Woodard, right, laughs with Nelson Mandela during a recent trip to South Africa.
  • Alfre Woodard greeted Mandela on his first trip to the U.S. after his release from prison
  • She has worked with Mandela to help combat the AIDS pandemic in South Africa
  • Woodard co-founded the nonprofit Artists for a New South Africa in 1989

(CNN) -- Two weeks before Nelson Mandela's 93rd birthday on July 18, actress Alfre Woodard sits on a couch near her home in Santa Monica, California, reminiscing about the first time she met him.

Already an activist and a leading voice against apartheid, Woodard introduced Mandela at a fundraising event in 1990 during his first trip to the United States after his release from prison.

"By the time I got on stage, I literally started to hop around ... I could not stop the electricity in my body," she said.

"So I went and I wrapped my arms around him, and I said to him in his ear, 'Oh Madiba, Madiba. How are you? Have you eaten? Have you slept?' And it became a really funny thing because 'Nobody has asked me that, Alfre, in my entire travels,'" Woodard said with a laugh. "So that sort of became the basis of our relationship."

Long before they met, Woodard's passion for social justice in South Africa had been growing since she was a student at Boston University.

By 1989, she joined a handful of artists and actors, such as Danny Glover and Mary Steenburgen, to found what is now called Artists for a New South Africa (ANSA). They used their celebrity platform to shine a light on apartheid and lobby for sanctions against the regime.

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"Once apartheid was crushed ... one of the things Madiba said to us was, 'You've helped us in our struggle to defeat apartheid, but right now we're facing another formidable foe -- and that is the HIV/AIDS pandemic,'" she said. "So we've morphed through the years of how we've wanted to be of assistance."

ANSA shifted its mission and in 2005 created an orphan care program called "It Takes a Village" to help around 3,500 AIDS orphans in South Africa.

While working to combat the disease, Woodard's relationship with Mandela has grown both as an activist and a friend.

She remembers receiving an invitation to a state dinner at the White House when Bill Clinton was president -- not from Clinton himself but from Mandela, who was being honored there.

"We were in the receiving line ... and he sees me about three people away and he leans over and he goes 'Alfre, Alfre! Remember me? It's Nelson," she said. "And I said, 'Madiba, I don't think anybody will ever forget you and certainly not me."

Other times, their dinners were less formal.

"We continued to do political work together...and I'd always had the blessing and good fortune to be able to have a private meal with him. The first one was after he became president.

"The thing about Madiba is that immediately it's like having an audience with your ancestors ... because he recognizes you as a young person but he talks to you and expects things of you as an equal. And I think when people expect things of you, you realize that you're capable of it and you can do it."

During one of Woodard's trips to South Africa, she toured Robben Island, where Mandela spent many of his 27 years in prison.

"After hearing so much about it, it's this big, evil fortress that sucks the life out of good people ... I thought I would get there and be angry," she said.

"As Ahmed Kathrada [a South African politician who spent 18 years in prison on Robben Island] walked us through the cellblocks and talked about life there, he completely transformed the whole notion of imprisonment. I realized you could not be imprisoned. You can be held. But these men decided not to be in prison. And for me, it almost became a sacred place.

"I think what Madiba has demonstrated to all of us is not what he was capable of but what every single person is capable of ... it doesn't matter what circumstance you're put into. It's how you respond to circumstance.

"He gives us that not as an icon but as a human being, as a man, as a grandfather, as a father, as a person, as a Madiba to everybody."