Mandela was a man who could truly put you at ease, who enjoyed interacting heartily with the common people‘I was profoundly moved at the way he could connect to a group of charladies, be one with them, of them, with no media or TV cameras to catch him ….’
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela died in the fullness of years, in the fullness of being witness to and a participant in the making of history. Even as we mourn the passing of the man, this is also an occasion to celebrate that life — in the best African tradition.
When I was reporting for The Hindu from South Africa during the period June 1994 to December 2001, there were occasions when one could see President Mandela in the corridors of the African National Congress (ANC) headquarters at Shell House in Plein Street, Johannesburg, or as he sometimes walked the short distance from Tuynhuis, the President’s office in the Parliament complex, to Parliament, in Cape Town.
Security in those early days of freedom was not very tight within the Parliament complex. However, the best bet was to be in the ANC headquarters at Shell House on Friday mornings, when he was usually at the ANC Office, moving in and out of rooms of comrades like Walter Sisulu on the same floor. I was a regular at Shell House in those days, having secured permission to study in the ANC library but actually hoping to catch a glimpse of Nelson Mandela.
During this period, I lived in a block of flats in Berea, Johannesburg, and had befriended Rica Hodgson, who lived in the same building. A veteran of the liberation struggle, Rica was Walter Sisulu’s secretary. I also had two other friends in the ANC: Pallo Jordan, a minister in the first Mandela cabinet, whom I knew from my days at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1965-66), and Moosie Moola, the ANC veteran from Johannesburg who worked from Shell House. It was through these contacts that I was able to secure an exclusive interview with President Mandela within months of my arrival in the country.
It was for me a memorable occasion; I was utterly overawed in his presence, but he was kind and informal, put me at ease and answered my questions and indeed made the interview more of a conversation, as it were. I was allotted exactly 45 minutes by his secretary Priscilla Naidoo, but the conversation stretched to an hour and 10 minutes, to the consternation of the secretary and the annoyance of more important persons who had an appointment with the President.
On Nehru and Gandhiji
One of the points that came through during this conversation was the high regard he had for Jawaharlal Nehru, though he was also respectful towards Gandhiji. But more than Gandhiji, he admired Nehru for his understanding of the struggle in South Africa as part of the unfinished business of decolonisation,
I had two other encounters with him, while being part of a crowd. The first was at a large meeting in the media briefing room in Parliament complex in Cape Town. The meeting had been called in the context of the growth of a disturbing kind or vigilantism represented by a phenomenon called People against Gangsterism and Drugs (PAGAD). The reporters had squeezed themselves wherever they could in the midst of a much larger “faith community” that had foregathered. President Mandela decided to walk up and individually greet those present. Walking in the narrow spaces between the rows of chairs as everyone stood up to make way for him, he said as he came up to where I was standing, “Hello, Old Man, how are you,” and without waiting for any reply, passed on to shake the next pair of hands.
My most memorable informal encounter was during the ANC’s 50th National Conference in December 1997 at the University of Mafikeng — the venue. The morning hours were quiet during the conference, and I was having breakfast in the university cafeteria. All of a sudden, the small staff of workers, mostly women with pails, brooms and mops, left their stuff and ran out ululating as they saw President Mandela walking in the vicinity of the canteen. Soon they surrounded him, singing songs celebrating the President. Mandela too was enjoying himself doing his famous shuffle, shaking hands all around. I had also left my breakfast unfinished and gone down to watch, standing on the periphery of the group of workers who were so delighted to see President Mandela at such close quarters, shake hands with him, sing and dance with him. He saw me, and raised his hand in greeting, saying “Hello Old Man, still here I see, how are you!” as he walked off without waiting for an answer.
It was but a moment, but I was profoundly moved at the way he could connect to a group of charladies, be one with them, of them, with no media or TV cameras to catch him “performing,” for he had walked away as a by now alerted TV crew advanced towards the spot. Truly, he was a People’s President.