Santa works overtime for Madiba

2006-12-14 08:57

Johannesburg - Christmas starts early for the world's favourite elder statesman Nelson Mandela.

Although presents pour in throughout the year from all corners of the globe, peak times are his birthday on July 18 and Christmas, according to the staff of the flagship Nelson Mandela Foundation who are busy listing and storing the latest batch of goodies flooding in since last month.

"The range of gifts is truly awesome," said Verne Harris, the project manager of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. "They vary from livestock to books and memorabilia, homemade jams and marmalade to whisky."

"It starts early and goes right up to the 25th or even after," he said.

This year's offerings include a silver bottle opener crafted by Tiffany and Co, the famed New York jewellers, and the entire King James' version of the Bible in minute print on a single sheet of paper bordered by an extravagantly bold frame.

"Last year a merino sheep breeder gave him three of his best sheep and he was delighted," said Harris. "And (South African tennis star) Amanda Coetzer gave him personalised running shoes with his name emblazoned on them."

Other gifts are humble and from the heart.

"An Afrikaner prisoner who is spending 25 years in a Johannesburg prison sends him a homemade present every year, as Mandela is his hero," said Boniswa Qabaka-Nyeti, information resource officer at the Foundation.

"Last year it was a paper mache bust of Madiba painted in gold," she said.

Big names figure among the givers.

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands gifted him a cashmere shawl in Delft blue, actor Robert De Niro opted for a still life in oil painted by his artist father while football icon David Beckham chose a book of photographs ... of himself.

"See you soon," Beckham inscribed on the leaf.

Other regulars include the Kennedys, the nearest equivalent to royalty in the United States, as well as the Bushes and the Clintons, said Qabaka-Nyeti.

"He enjoys everything he gets," she said. "The sweetest gifts for me are things that people think he really needs like a special back cushion to be used while he is travelling, to walking sticks, combs, chocolates, fruits.

Lots of alcohol

"And then there is alcohol, lots and lots of it!"

The treasure trove of gifts includes a pair of silver cufflinks with the Lord's Prayer inscribed in tiny letters, gold-topped canes, jackets, neckties and mounds and mounds of books.

Qabaka-Nyeti said Mandela, who grew up in the rugged Eastern Cape region where cattle-herding is the favourite pastime of young boys, still enjoys receiving cows as presents.

"He loves cattle. He's still a village boy."

Mandela, who has homes in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Qunu - his birthplace in the Eastern Cape - and in Maputo, Mozambique's seaside capital, chooses some gifts to display in his homes.

The Foundation keeps the others in storage after making a detailed inventory. They are then displayed to the public at regular intervals.

Some presents are incredibly down to earth and in keeping with Mandela's pledge to devote more of his retirement time to his favourite hobbies, which include gardening.

A couple from Michigan sent a parcel filled with seed packets: parsley, basil, squash, cauliflower, watermelon and cantaloupe.

For Mandela the reader, the choice is vast - Greek history, books on mysticism, a velvet-covered Bible in Burmese and a tome on Asian-African relations presented by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

And for Mandela, the vociferous Aids activist - a framed teddy bear sporting the Aids ribbon.

Now 88, Mandela spent a total of 27 years in prison for fighting the apartheid regime and gained worldwide admiration and reverence for overseeing the peaceful transition to democracy in 1994.

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