City Press 30: Meeting Mandela after all these years

2012-03-02 15:04

To celebrate thirty years of City Press, we feature gems from our archive.

Coming face-to-face with one of the most famous people in the world could be nerve-wracking. I was soon to find out about that when I got a call from the Mandela home on Wednesday morning.

“Tata wants to meet and shake hands with you.”

The message was short, sweet – but loud and clear.

Long after the phone had clicked dead on the other side I found myself still saying: “Most certainly ... much obliged ... when? ... now, you mean?...”

Nelson Mandela wanted to have a tête-à-tête with me. I was telling my colleagues. “Really? Did you phone him or did he phone you?” they kept asking.

Mandela and I wrote to each other for about two years. No big deal, some people said when I proudly displayed my collection of letters.

“The man must have been bored sitting in jail having nothing else to do,” they sourly said. But I knew they were envious of my claim of friendship with Madiba – as most of his letters were signed.

In any case, driving to the Mandela home after that telephone call was an irksome experience. I was among the crowd that took to the streets on Saturday night soon after it was announced he would be released.

I joined the happy throng who “toyi toyied” on Sunday when word spread like wildfire in the townships that he would be coming home to Soweto.

I was among the 120 000 jubilant, but disppointed, crowd of people when I could not come anywhere near getting a glimpse of him at the FNB stadium.

Now this telephone call! “Yes, come and see him. Just tell the marshals to let you in,” was the instruction.

Outside the Mandela home in Orlando West local and foreign media were patiently waiting. To get a picture or a word from the man who shook the world, and continues to do so, was sufficient.

On my way to the house – after going through tight security – on American journalist yelled: “Find out about his diet ... and health.”

That’s Mandela mania for you.

Because an interview was not allowed, I was curious – perhaps unfairly in this instance – to find out whether the man was as warm and caring as his letters indicated.

Was he as pushy and domineering as some people have said of him? What about his views? Are they the same in private conversation as those expressed in public? Was he bitter about his many years in prison?

It did not take a second to find all these answers.

With a giant leap across a small, but comfortable lounge, Mandela hugged me and shook my hand vigorouosly, welcoming me in. For one moment I was stunned. Yes, the man was warm.

Without wasting time, he got down to business: “I owe it to all you people ... you’ve been great”.

At 71 how is he going to cope with all this euphoria? He is a father, a family man, a leader, a cult and just about everything. Surely there will be a breaking point.

The right wing is screaming for his blood; they say he must be hanged. The white liberals are uneasy after campainging for his release because he talks about nationalising the mines and the banks.

The govenrment feel betrayed, although they are not saying it, after his call for the intensification of the armed struggle.

The National Executive of the ANC had to call an urgent two-day conference in Lusaka to determine his role within the leadership.

The Western countries feel let down that Mandela still talks the language of the ’50s and ’60s by still regarding the communists as his allies.

Many of those who had their cars hijacked and property destroyed since his release was announced are now apprehensive. Rival political orgnisations to the ANC say they want to see how far Mandela will go with negotiations with the government without their participation.

All-in-all the road ahead for Mandela will not be an easy one. There are all sorts of problems that could crop up between now and the day people sit around the negotiating table.

A power struggle cannot be ruled out and Mandela seems to be aware of all these problems. But can he cope by himself? Most certainly not. He will need support from all the people of South Africa.

After taking a close look at his small and modest house, I agree with those who say Mandela should look for a bigger and better-situated home.

Whichever way one looks at it, his present home no longer befits his status. For a start it is too small to accommodate the number of visitors expected to to see him in the coming days.

Many people have already expressed fears about the situation of the house. Even a white junior cabinet minister would feel unsafe living there.

Mandela is the people’s leader but his safety should be uppermost in the minds of those he leads. The lunatics from the right who have called for his blood should not be taken lightly; they will stop at nothing.

Talking about the Mandela mania, I was amused to see that fiery American civil rights leader and one time United States presidential candidate Jesse Jackson take a back seat to the Mandela release.

You see, Jackson – like most American public figures – likes to steal the limelight. They will go to any lengths to attract attention. In the case of Jackson he timed the release of Mandela to coincide with his visit to this country.

Poor Jackson. Everybody, including his own media forgot at one stage that he was in South Africa. No wonder he had to cut his stay short. This should be a lesson to all those Americans that we too have leaders of world stature.

I was also to hear that Mercede Benz of South Africa will donate a Merc to Mandela. I’m told the idea comes from the workers themselves. Well done guys, the man deserves it. But don’t forget to install the bullet proofing. There are mad people out there.

Yes, it was wonderful to shake hands with Mandela and I am sure that goes for others who had this opportunity. Our prayers to have him back to his people alive were answered.

Long live Mandela.

– City Press, February 18, 1990

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