Framing An Icon

2013-12-08 14:00

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Journalist Sylvia Vollenhoven recalls the many ways Tata touched her life

Recently I impulsively took a photo of a picture on my wall. In the photo I am interviewing Nelson Mandela at the Haga Slott Castle in Sweden soon after his release in 1990. As I take the picture of a picture I wonder: “How do I frame Madiba in my life?”

How do I put into perspective just how Tata, the endearment we use to feel somehow closer to him, changed the framework of my life?

I am at primary school when he is jailed in the 1960s; we whisper his name when I awaken to the politics of black consciousness in the 1970s; he is the pinnacle of our hopes in the violent 1980s; and I am delirious with joy when he throws his arms around me soon after his release in 1990 and says: “I followed your stories when I was in jail.”

To tell a grand story, it is good to begin with the small details.

Vollenhoven interviewing Nelson Mandela at Haga Slott Castle in Sweden soon after his release.

I am standing in front of an open car. In the trunk is a cooler bag with huge red chunks of African watermelon with an incredibly green skin. Close by, a TV crew is poised on a tall crane hired for the day. The cool, sweet melon juice drips down my arms and the fruit is a relief in the mid-afternoon summer heat.

The previous day, I attended a press conference convened by then president FW de Klerk in the parliamentary complex. The plaque in the foyer is in memory of the architect of apartheid, HF Verwoerd. De Klerk is surrounded by middle-aged white Afrikaner men. It was a context where I found it hard to imagine a space for Mandela.

The following day, we gather at Victor Verster Prison just outside Cape Town.

People surge towards the gates. The crane moves the TV crew even higher. The world’s most famous prisoner is finally about to walk through the iron gates a free man. I grab my notebook and run to join my colleagues. I worry that the watermelon juice has smudged some of the pages. I feel I should have chosen a new notebook for this giddy occasion.

The prison staff, mostly white, are gathered in the grounds. A traffic police escort is waiting. The marshals of the liberation movement and the police are trying to keep order. Nervous white officials, delirious black crowds. Helicopters drown out the songs of people on the ground.

And then I see him for the first time. A tall man in a grey suit with his fist in the air. There is so much commotion that when I weep nobody notices. Later, at the Grand Parade, a Cape Town square dominated by a statue of Britain’s King Edward VII, I hear him speak for the first time: “I stand before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of the people.”

I write in my watermelon notebook as the sun sets behind Table Mountain, but this practical activity is not enough to keep me grounded. I feel as if I am floating somewhere above the mountain, looking down at this unfolding magic. When his motorcade departs, the crowds go dancing down city streets.

In the days after his release we follow him around as though he is a Messiah. We write down every word and ask questions with far too much respect for efficient journalism. Then, along with a group of media people, ANC officials, family and friends, I am invited to his home in Soweto. We can just about manage to squeeze into the small house in Vilakazi Street. I stand in the back yard next to a huge pot plant, awaiting my turn with a journalist friend.

“I followed your stories when I was in jail.” Nelson Mandela is standing in the doorway, looking directly us. The handlers and officials give way and rival journalists fall back. At first I assume he is talking to somebody else. But then he walks in my direction. I know this moment will not last, so I grab my notebook and hold it out towards him. “Please sign it,” I say to looks of disapproval from some and envy from others.

As Nelson Mandela writes in my notebook I am pleased that a new one has by now replaced the watermelon-stained potential museum piece.

He hugs me, then writes: “To Sylvia, with my compliments and best wishes.”

The Signed Notebooks that have been auctioned.

The exchange on the steps at the back door to the tiny house in Soweto’s Orlando West provides a new framework for our relationship. He has put a face to the name he has read in newspapers and I have acquired a personal touch for the icon I’ve worshipped since my teenage years. Each time he sees me in public he stops the entourage, the bodyguards fall back and he always asks how I am doing.

A month later, Madiba travels to the Frontline States (South African neighbouring countries and near neighbours) and Scandinavia to express support and gratitude. The message from my editor at the time is clear: “Travel with Mandela to Sweden and be ready to write the story as you land.”

Traveling with Nelson and Winnie Mandela in Sweden in 1990.

At the KLM office where I book my ticket a young woman called Ayesha is the only person on duty. I give her the flight number.

“I have to sit as close to Nelson Mandela as possible,” I say.

She looks up at me and I expect resistance, but she catches me by surprise. “Oh I can see you are a relative,” she says conspiratorially as she checks the seating plan.

The fortunate mistake makes me feel an offbeat kind of pride. In my home town, children joke about Madiba’s Khoisan features. The silly humour is our way of claiming him.

“Hello Sylvia,” he says almost half a decade later when I arrive at the presidency, invited to dinner with a group of media colleagues. “Now that you are famous you no longer visit me.”

The gentle, almost childlike pretence that I am too busy to give him time continues on each of the many occasions that we meet. It’s an old-world charm that works. I feel special and he has had some fun.

Covering the Mandela era – the years leading up to his release from prison, through the Codesa negotiations until his presidency and beyond – has defined my life.

At one dinner at the presidency I sit down and notice the place next to me has no name tag. The chair is upturned, clearly off limits. When I ask one of the aides if my friend can sit there he says: “No, Madiba has asked to sit next to you.”

When it is his 80th birthday, I watch the finance minister, Trevor Manuel, climb on to the table of the up-market Sandton Hotel to do an impromptu dance at the official birthday party. Michael Jackson, Nina Simone, Oprah Winfrey, Robert De Niro?… the celebrity list is long. But I am most proud to be rubbing shoulders with the finance minister dancing on the table. It sums up the naive excitement and the warmth of the Mandela presidency. I am also proud that Michael Jackson gets hardly any applause, but people stand when Nina Simone enters the room. They clap loud and long. Touches that define the Mandela era.

Recently I face a heartbreaking choice. My fight with the SABC about a film I made – a documentary on corruption that they commissioned but are refusing to air – has ended in an expensive legal battle. And the corporation has punitively frozen a lucrative, unrelated contract because I am opposing them in court. To keep my company going in these tough times I put up for auction my signed notebooks, my 80th-birthday memorabilia and my personalised copy of A Long Walk to Freedom.

As I write this, it comes to me how to frame Nelson Mandela?… how to put him in an appropriate place in my professional life that started with the Soweto uprisings of June 1976, reached a peak with his release in the nineties and that is slowing down as I awake this week to a world without him.

Madiba has helped me understand that true greatness is underpinned by genuine warmth. That glorious moments are framed with watermelon droplets. He made me feel proud for the very first time to be a South African?...?the heart-expanding thrill of being part of something so momentous it can never be repeated in my lifetime.

With his passing I feel sadness and even anger that our liberation road, the road we walked with Madiba, took such painful twists and turns. But I am comforted by the joy of my memories.

Tata, I am weeping for you, but they are the same tears I shed unnoticed in the cacophony outside Victor Verster on that watermelon day in 1990?...?in pure gratitude for the gift of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

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