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Tampa legislator up front at Mandela talk

TAMPA - In Cape Town, South Africa, on Sunday afternoon thousands of blacks swarmed into the streets in front of City Hall, singing, dancing and cheering as they waited for freed nationalist leader Nelson Mandela to speak. And, nudging his way to the front of the crowd, camera in hand to document the historic moment, was Florida state Sen. John Grant of Tampa.

The Republican senator, who represents parts of Hillsborough and Pasco counties, was on a two-week trip to South Africa, meeting business and church leaders as part of a program to help U.S. citizens better understand the country.

That he was there when Mandela was released from prison after nearly 28 years was pure coincidence, he said.

"I was actually 10 feet from him when he gave his speech," Grant said by telephone Monday from his hotel room in Cape Town. "It was exciting for me to stand there in the midst of history in the making."

Grant said he arrived at City Hall just as Mandela was beginning to speak - and after a violent clash between police and youths who, growing impatient waiting for Mandela, began to loot nearby stores.

Broken glass littered the streets and police fired plastic bullets and tear gas at some unruly youths, Grant said.

"But by and large the crowd was very excited, very controlled and very polite," he said.

When Grant first arrived, he said he approached NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw and asked him what he thought Grant's chances were of making it to the front of the crowd.

"He said, 'You have a shirt and tie on. They'll let you right through,' and they did," he said.

So what did Grant think of Mandela's speech? "Much of what he said was very good," Grant said. But the 43-year-old legislator and lawyer did not agree with everything.

"Things are escalating very, very rapidly. It is incredibly important that the United States drop sanctions," Grant said. "And there is a question of what happens to a country, if it is turned over to a people who are not ready to govern."

Grant said he is due back in Tampa on Saturday.