The Madiba Appreciation Club: A Chef's Story

2018-05-03 07:54
The Madiba Appreciation Club published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

The Madiba Appreciation Club published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

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I was so excited about being part of president Nelson Mandela's inauguration in May 1994 and walking among kings and queens, presidents and celebrities at the Presidential Guesthouse in Pretoria, that I did not realise that I was also witnessing the ANC building a government from scratch. In the weeks before and after the inauguration, I met a number of key role-players in the ANC.

The ANC was finding its feet in its new position of power, but it was doing so very quickly. New Cabinet ministers, directors general, judges, and so on were appointed. The location for all of this was right there at the guesthouse. Towards the end of May, I could see things starting to settle in the ranks of the ANC. There was definitely less tension in the air and a friendlier atmosphere.

I also met Mary Mxadana, who was responsible for the president's diary and was constantly at his side – from morning till night. You could see that she made the executive decisions. No one would move unless Mary had approved it. She was tall and built like an athlete; her background was gospel music and one could hear her tweet into a tune now and then. I was blessed to have worked with Mary from 1994 to 2000.

Still, initially she was as critical of my presence as some of the black bodyguards, and others. I had to earn her trust. She would often pop in to the guesthouse after hours to see the president and always willing to assist. She soon saw how well I was looking after the president.

This is what my daily routine looked like at the time:

5 a.m.

I arrived at the guesthouse to be met by the bodyguards on the night shift. By now, I was always greeted with a high-five and a huge smile.

8 a.m.

Everyone began to arrive for the day and the dining rooms filled up with ANC stalwarts such as Mathews Phosa, Tokyo Sexwale, Alfred Nzo and Cyril Ramaphosa. I often heard them having discussions about major issues and hatching plans for our country's future. All of this was happening around me.

I was invisible to all and, for the first time in my life, it did not bother me. If the dining room was full, their next-favourite place to have a meeting would be the kitchen. We would fetch two banquet chairs, place them at the stainless-steel table in the kitchen, serve breakfast, and their discussions would simply carry on.

When we served breakfast, Mary would come down to the kitchen and ask for the president's breakfast. At that time, he had most of his meals in his suite, which had a dining area. I would have a silver tray set out with the cutlery and crockery set according to the meal. An example of what the president would eat for breakfast is a bowl of fresh oats, a plate of fresh fruit, a boiled egg, toast and freshly squeezed orange juice.

Madiba loved healthy, natural foods; he wanted to taste the original flavour of fruits and vegetables. He never liked a sauce over his vegetables; salt and pepper with some butter was all he wanted.

We were fortunate that many farmers sent different raw foods as gifts. Whenever I presented a meal made from such donations, I would always tell the president where in the country it came from.

12 p.m.

For lunch, I would serve a three-course meal. It was also silver service, served in waves. These meals would be healthy and quick. The president usually joined his colleagues for lunch in the main dining room.

Everyone still at the guesthouse by late afternoon would also be served dinner. One day, I was sitting in one of the wingback chairs in the passage, because the dinner prep was ready and the meetings in all the rooms in the guesthouse were going on a bit long.
A gentleman came up to me. I jumped up.

'Pleased to meet you. I am Frank Chikane,' he said in his husky voice (if you closed your eyes you would think you were listening to Barry White).

'Pleased to meet you sir. I am—'

'I know who you are. You're the chef who is looking after all of us.

I just wanted to come and thank you. We really appreciate it.'

I had heard that Rev Chikane was one of the regulars in the passageways of the guesthouse. I had also heard that apartheid security forces had tried to assassinate him in 1989. It had come up one night when I was talking to the bodyguards, who had great respect for him because he was so kind and forgiving. As one of them said, had he been in Rev Chikane's shoes he would've hated the person who tried to kill him for the rest of his life. But not Rev Chikane – he was a true Christian.

I stood up and thanked the reverend for his compliments.

I decided to ask him a question I'd always been curious about. 'Sir, may I ask you something?'

'Yes,' he said.

'People have tried to assassinate you. Are you fine with it now?'

He laughed. 'I have always had someone look over me. I believe He will continue to look over me.'

***

After going through the same routine for about a month and seeing the same faces, things slowly became more stable and organised. Everyone, including the staff at the guesthouse, was finding their feet. By the end of May, it was mostly the upper echelons of the ANC and the members of the new Government of National Unity, including those from the National Party, who visited the guesthouse most regularly.

One evening, I walked into the dining room to find the entire top structure of the ANC sitting there. One of them, a minister, turned to me and asked me to join them. I thanked him, but said I was there to serve them and ensure that dinner ran smoothly.

When his colleagues repeated the invitation, I went and got myself a plate of food and sat down at the table. The minister explained to me that the ANC operated as a family. During the day, when there was work to be done, everyone was focused – there was no time for play and everyone knew their place in the ranks.

Yet, after hours, the ANC came together as comrades and friends – as a family.

I sat there looking at all these great men. Many had lost years of their life serving prison sentences during apartheid. They'd lost loved ones and sacrificed more than anyone who has not been in their position could ever understand. This team of admirable men, this family, was going to take our country into the new era. I was convinced they could unite us.

The mere fact that they could appreciate what I did, and that they believed every single person counted – no matter where they fitted into the scheme of things and regardless of their colour, religion or creed – showed me that they were committed to the dream of a democratic South Africa where every person and group would be respected.

I was incredibly honoured to sit at that table that night.

* This is an abridged extract from The Madiba Appreciation Club: A Chef’s Story written by Brett Ladds and published by Jonathan Ball Publishers.


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