The time Madiba bought me a drink

2013-06-24 15:12

I only met Nelson Mandela once. It was a mad meeting at a really crazy time in our history.

It was also kind of funny. In a terrifying way. And he bought me a drink. Kinda.

It’s December 1993, if my few remaining brain cells are to be relied upon. It’s the build-up to the 1994 elections. I’ve bailed on journalism.

I’ve been working for this thing called the Joint Working Committee. It’s this ANC-Cosatu set-up that works with the National Peace Committee to try stop political killings.

Things are bad. People are getting slaughtered all over the province. Every election rally that takes place in rural KwaZulu-Natal is a potential disaster. The IFP has this strategy of finding out where ANC rallies are set to happen and occupying the venues.

And stomping whoever turns up from the other side.

My boss Sipho Gcabashe’s job is to negotiate with the cops and the IFP’s warlords. And keep the ANC’s own ones in check. Sipho’s this short cat with massive balls. He needs them.

We’re in Northern Zululand. Dukuduku Forest to be exact. Serious IFP territory. Madiba’s set to speak at this mini-rally. The local IFP is pissed. Madiba’s about as welcome as the Jelly Tsotsi in Luthuli House for the Monday meeting.

We’re driving into Dukuduku. We’re the only ones. Everybody else is getting out of Dodge. The ANC buses and taxis are all hammering it southwards. The IFP’s occupied the venue. The rally’s off. Madiba’s going to address the punters at the 121 Battalion’s airfield at Mtubatuba.

There’s a big snag. There’s this crew of ANC youngsters from Mtuba who got there early. They’re trapped on the other side of a clearing.

Between them and their bus is this tooled up impi who are baying for their blood. The Babylon are standing around grinning. They’re not going to lift a finger when the killing starts.

Sipho finds the IFP leadership. They let us take the kids out with a bus. One snag – we have to get it through this angry army.

Some genius decides I have to ride shotgun. Great. I’m shitting myself. So’s the driver. His eyes are like dinner plates. We crawl through the crowd.

They’re gagging to do us. One crew starts smashing windows with knobkierries. The driver’s screaming but keeps going. We reach these kids. We pack them in. The driver does a turn and we’re inching out of the clearing.

The crew behind us gives the bus a last battering. There’s flying glass and screams everywhere as we make it out. The drive to Mtuba’s a nightmare.

Every bend is a potential ambush. A couple are. We’re stoned and shot at – but we make it. By the time Madiba finishes speaking nobody’s dead.

We get back to this hotel at Richards Bay. Post mortem. The leadership cats are all around this table by the pool, discussing the near massacre.

I’m still shaking. I stink of terror sweat and blood. Madiba walks up. He’s wearing the trademark shirt and a pair of Bermudas. He’s looking cool as hell.

Madiba asks me my name. I mumble it to him. I’m in shock. Sipho briefs him about the bus mission. He asks me if I’m OK. I mumble again. He turns to Chris Dlamini and says: ‘Chris, get this young man a stiff drink. He clearly needs it.”

I’m dazed. I dunno what to say. I manage ‘thank you’ and I’m led off to the bar and the triple Madiba bought me.

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