Melanie Verwoerd

Muhammad Ali, Pierce Brosnan and Madiba walk into a room...

2016-06-07 10:45

Melanie Verwoerd

On Saturday morning I woke up to the news that the great Muhammad Ali had died. Listening to all the tributes to this remarkable and inspiring man, I was reminded of a few extraordinary days in Dublin, where I was privileged to meet him together with a few other celebrities.

When Nelson Mandela visited Ireland in 2003 to attend the Special Olympics, it was my job as South African Ambassador at the time to handle the hundreds of requests to meet him. Madiba was particularly looking forward to a meeting with Muhammad Ali, who was also there to attend the event. On the day of the meeting, I accompanied Muhammad and his entourage up to Madiba’s suite, where they warmly hugged.

It was sad to see the man who was known as much for his gift of the gab (as the Irish would say) as for his lightning fast punches, silent and shaking uncontrollably from Parkinson’s disease. However, when he saw Madiba, his eyes lit up and he smiled faintly. Even though he struggled to utter a few words, he lifted his fists in a boxing pose. Madiba immediately responded and there were the most famous men in the world, laughingly sparing with one another.

Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali in 2003. Photographer: Julian Cole (

After the meeting, I bumped into another action hero, Pierce Brosnan, who was having tea in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel, where Mandela was staying. He asked if it was possible to be introduced to Mandela. Naturally, I said yes. Actually I think I might have whispered something pathetic like: “Anything Mr Bond, I mean Mr Brosnan.” In my defence, show me a woman that ever said no to 007? Regaining my composure, I asked him to wait close to the lifts, since I knew Madiba was on his way down. I rushed over to warn Zelda Le Grange that Pierce was there and wanted to meet Madiba.

'Who is Pierce Brosnan?'

The security held the lift, while Zelda said to Madiba: “Khulu, Pierce Brosnan is out here to meet you.”

Madiba frowned. “Who?” he asked. “Pierce Brosnan,” Zelda repeated. Madiba’s frown deepened. “I don’t know who he is. What is he famous for?” he asked. “He is an actor. He played James Bond,” Zelda responded. Madiba just shook his head. I suddenly realised that all the Bond movies were made while Madiba was in jail and movie nights would of course not have been a regular thing on Robben Island.

“Khulu, we don’t have time. Can you please just greet him?” Zelda said, slightly exasperated. “Of course!” Madiba responded as he followed me to where Pierce was standing. Slightly apprehensively I said: “Mr Brosnan, meet Mr Mandela. Madiba, this is Pierce Brosnan”.  I needn’t have worried. Madiba shook Pierce’s hand warmly and with his magical smile said: “Ah, Mr Brosnan, what a real, real honour to meet you at last.”

Naturally Pierce just beamed.

Later that evening at the stadium where the event was held, we were watching proceedings on TV in the green room while Madiba was waiting to go onstage. When Pierce appeared on screen to loud applause, Madiba sat up. “Hey,” he said to Cyril Ramaphosa, next to him. “I met that fellow today! Is he really famous?”

Cyril was speechless for a few moments and then burst out laughing. He explained to Madiba, who had a good chuckle.

Later, Pierce joined a few of my guests in a suite in the stadium. Muhammad Ali, who was in the suite next to ours heard that Pierce was there and sent a message that he would really like to meet him. Pierce was thrilled and was next door faster than you could say 007. An hour or so later, Pierce was back with a table cloth rolled up under his arm. It turns out Muhammad had drawn a little stick figure in a boxing ring on a tablecloth and signed it for Pierce who proudly showed it to everyone.

'I am nicer than Arnie'

The next day as we left the hotel for the airport, Madiba went over to a few children who were waiting to greet him. He picked up a little girl with Down Syndrome and softly spoke to her. “You are so nice,” she beamed, before whispering something in his ear which made him laugh out loud. They hugged tightly.

On the way to the airport I asked Madiba what she had said. He replied: “She had said that I was much nicer than Arnie (Arnold Schwarzenegger), who she had met earlier.” He started to laugh again. “Imagine that I had to come to Dublin, to realise I can box with Muhammad Ali and that I am nicer than the Terminator.”

For the rest of the trip he kept talking about this little girl. He had met so many famous and powerful people and yet, it was the love and the courage of the little girl that really touched him.

Then it struck me. In the end, even the most famous and powerful people in the world are just human, after all. No matter how famous or rich they are, they still need love and affection and also people they can admire. Whether it is Pierce Brosnan wanting to meet Madiba, or Muhammad Ali wanting to meet Pierce Brosnan. Or Madiba who always wanted to meet the children that he so adored.

We need heroes

And of course us not-so-famous people need heroes like Muhammad Ali and Madiba to inspire us to be more courageous, principled and... nicer than Arnie!

There was one more funny twist to this story. On the plane the day of his departure, Madiba was mistakenly boarded first and as always sat in Row 1 on the plane. As passengers filed on everyone naturally said hello.

Finally, there was a lull as they waited for one last passenger. He finally arrived and rushed past Madiba. Two rows later, he abruptly stopped, frowned and then slowly reversed to where Madiba was sitting. “You’re Nelson Mandela, right?” he said to the amusement of everyone on the plane. Mandela looked up at him, very seriously. “No, no, young man,” he said. “Many people mistake me for that famous fellow.”

If there is an afterlife, I hope that Madiba and Muhammed Ali are able to meet up and spar for a few rounds, unrestricted by disease and old age. For both of them that would surely be heaven.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    muhammad ali  |  nelson mandela  |  pierce brosnan

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