How my Madiba moment defined my career

2013-12-06 12:32

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Nelson Mandela gave his blessing for me to become a journalist, or at least that’s how I’d like to think of it.

It was a year after his release in 1991 and I was a fairly innocent 17 at the time, but I knew three things: it was a good thing for our country that he’d been released from prison, apartheid was evil because all humans are equal and I would vote for the ANC once we had democratic elections.

The polls were still under construction.

Nobody was certain that we’d have a peaceful and democratic outcome, but at least that evening there was a feeling we were headed that way.

I had my Madiba moment in the lounge of the late Jannie Momberg’s house in Stellenbosch. Momberg later became an ANC MP.

The meeting was attended mostly by white academics and student activist leaders who were friendly towards the ANC. This included my parents. Many of their friends were there, including Melanie Verwoerd, who married the infamous apartheid ruler’s grandson and went on to become the youngest MP (for the ANC) in 1994.

Much of the other details were fuzzy. I remember my hair was slightly oily that day, so I wore a hair band to disguise it. I had bad skin too, of which I was painfully self-conscious, and I put on the best shirt I had (I lived in T-shirts and jeans and wasn’t used to dressing up).

I also put on my ANC beads, which I sometimes wore to subtly express my affiliation. Subtly, because not everyone was friendly towards ANC colours then and not too long ago the party was banned. I was as brave as I was scared in those days.

Mandela addressed the meeting, but I don’t remember much of what he said.

I think he spoke about the political situation in the country, which included attempting to allay whatever white fears the audience had.

Then we all got a turn to meet him. I didn’t assume that he’d want to talk to a schoolgirl, but I was given a turn too.

The feeling was the same as when I met Father Christmas as a little girl. It was overwhelming, and I had no idea what to tell him.

He was somewhat stiff and formal, nowhere near the cuddly teddybear he was sometimes portrayed as, especially in later life, and I got the sense he was a bit tired too (I met Chris Hani a few months later in town at a protest and it was a whole different arm-around-the-shoulders ballgame).

Then Madiba asked me what I wanted to become one day. By that time I knew I didn’t want to follow my father into law, but become a journalist.

“Good,” he said, “we need journalists who report responsibly.”

I think he also said something about how important the media was in a democracy, and about being patriotic?– but not in the narrow sense that beleaguered politicians often say it today, I don’t think.

The next time Madiba came to Stellenbosch was a few years later, he was president of the country and I was a student, active in the ANC branch on campus.

We angrily protested against his visit, saying he’d shown too much magnanimity towards a white, Afrikaans university that refused to transform.

He humoured us by acknowledging us and I think he even explained why he had to go ahead with his visit to the university bosses. We were still unhappy, but we didn’t feel disregarded.

In the end, history – and I – will remember him for this magnanimity even in the face of disagreement.

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