Melanie Verwoerd

Mumps, a little girl and a colonel: How Madiba taught us to sweat the small stuff

2018-07-18 07:00
(File, AFP)

(File, AFP)

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I met Madiba for the first time shortly after his release in 1990 at an event in Stellenbosch. My then husband wanted to apologise to Madiba for his grandfather, HF Verwoerd's, part in his suffering, but we weren't sure whether he would even want to speak to us. Of course, he did.

To our astonishment he said that it was an honour to meet us! He would also not hear of any apology. Instead, he wanted to know how Wilhelm's grandmother was doing. Despite being told that she was living in Orania, he sent her his regards, "from one pensioner to another". It took only a few seconds to know that that we were in the company of greatness.

But it isn't the big political actions that I will remember most. Yes, he did the almost unthinkable and brought South Africa peacefully through a transition that could have so easily spiralled into civil war. Yes, he intervened time and time again in the world and solved problems that no one else could. But ultimately, it was the "small" deeds anchored in his deep love for people, coupled with his lack of self-importance, that for me made him the giant that he was.

Years ago, he asked me to join him at an event for 30 Afrikaner women. This involved an early morning flight on the presidential jet and a journey from the airport to the residence in Pretoria. Every time we stopped at a red traffic light (he did not allow the jumping of lights or speeding by his drivers), he would turn down his window and say hallo to the street hawkers, who could of course not believe their eyes. When he came to Dublin for the Special Olympics he did the same, happily winding down the car window to say hallo to the "very friendly people of Ireland", as he put it.

A journalist friend once told me how he had mentioned to Madiba shortly after his release from prison that his young son shared a birthday with Madiba. Madiba made sure to get my friend's details and every year after that on the day of their shared birthday, there would be an early morning call from Madiba to my friend's son to wish him a good day and year.

In 2013 I started collecting stories of "ordinary" South Africans who had met Madiba. I was astonished how many people had "bumped" into Madiba during, for example, his walks in Cape Town, buying stationary in Sandton or even outside a cinema. Not only did those fleeting few moments often change their lives, it also showed the true humanity of Madiba.

While writing her matric exams in 1996 Rebecca Hayes got mumps and had to go to her ENT specialist. As she told me: "We waited and waited, and my dad eventually politely asked the receptionist what was going on." It turned out Madiba needed an emergency appointment. A few minutes later Madiba exited from the doctor's office. Rebecca said: "The entire waiting room was in complete shock and all my pain completely disappeared. Mr Mandela spoke quietly to his bodyguard, who then spoke to the receptionist. She then pointed to me! The president of South Africa, a Nobel Prize winner and one of the most famous men in the world, walked over to me and apologized for taking my appointment. I was totally stunned and just said: 'It's cool'".

Madiba then asked about what she was studying, if she had a boyfriend and then wished her well with her matric exams. Twenty years later those few minutes still moved Rebecca.

On 18 July 1995 Andy Bolnick, who also shares a birthday with Madiba, walked past the presidential residence. On the spur of the moment she showed the security at the gate her ID and asked if her birthday wishes can be conveyed to Madiba. They did one better. They phoned the house and a few minutes later the message came back: "Madiba says send her in." And so, as Andy put it, she got the best birthday gift ever: a big hug and birthday wishes from one of the most famous men in the world.

Shirley Naidoo, Madiba's Cape Town housekeeper after his retirement told me a similar story. One day a little 6-year-old girl arrived at the gate and asked to see Madiba. The security let her in, but warned that he might be too busy to see her. Shirley said, "I went to Madiba and said: 'Tata, there is a little girl in the kitchen. We don't know her, but she really wants to meet you.' He immediately said: 'Bring her here!' I took her to the dining room where she sat with him and they talked and talked. I heard her telling him that she wanted to be just like him, which he enjoyed very much. When he finally sent her on her way she was delighted."

Rory Steyn, one of Madiba's bodyguards remembered how Madiba on the day of his inauguration in 1994 got out of his car when he spotted a white colonel in uniform at one of the events. "The colonel's eyes grew larger and larger as Madiba walked directly to him. Madiba put out his hand and said: 'Colonel, I'm now the president of South Africa, but I want you to know that today, you have become our police. There is no more you and us.'" Rory said that the hardened veteran could not say a word as tears ran down his lined face and dripped on the floor. Madiba patted his shoulder and said: "It's ok colonel, it's ok."

I collected almost a hundred stories like these. Madiba understood how important small gestures of kindness were (and still are) in a divided and traumatised society like ours. He taught us how important it is to "sweat the small stuff".

We can't all be big leaders, but every one of us has immense capacity to be kind and compassionate. Perhaps this is the lesson we should all embrace as we remember our Madiba today on his 100th birthday.

Happy birthday, Madiba. We miss you.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. She is author of “Our Madiba: Stories and reflections from those who met Nelson Mandela”.

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