Melanie Verwoerd

Was Madiba as special as his media image portrayed?

2016-07-18 07:00

Melanie Verwoerd

Today we are celebrating Madiba's birthday. As someone who was privileged to engage with him a few times, I am often asked if he was as special as his media image portrayed. I can relate many experiences, but there is perhaps one event, more so than any other, that proved to me what an extraordinary person he was.

In early 1995 I got a call from Madiba’s office. Madiba was hosting representatives of 30 conservative Afrikaner women's organisations for tea the next morning in Pretoria and he wanted me to accompany him. I was in the middle of a house move, but how do you say no to Nelson Mandela? I mean you can’t say: "Thanks for the invite, Madiba, but I’m moving house."

So at 05:00 the next morning, I was at Ysterplaat airbase. Madiba arrived a few minutes later flanked by two bodyguards. He knew all the staff by name and took time to greet them and ask after their families. I got a big hug and he laughed when I told him that I had abandoned my husband for him on moving day. "This could cause a scandal!" he said, and winked mischievously. As we made our way to the presidential jet Madiba spotted a man sweeping the grounds in the distance. Despite his bodyguards' protests, he insisted that the worker be brought over, so he could greet him.

As soon as we were in the air, Madiba asked politely if he could practise his speech for the morning - which was in Afrikaans - on me. As if I would say no! After he read it aloud a few times, I told him how touched I was by the effort he was making. "Language is important when it comes to reconciliation," he said.

         (AFP file)

In Pretoria we got into the presidential convoy. Unlike the 11 vehicle convoy of our current president, Madiba had only one security car in front and one behind, no blue lights and he insisted that they kept to the speed limit and not jump any lights. It was still early morning in Pretoria and at traffic lights, hawkers and newspaper sellers were setting up for the day. At every red light Madiba would wind down his window and greet the traders, who, to the security’s exasperation, would rush over, overwhelmed with emotion when they realised it was Madiba.

At the official residence, Madiba was first taken to his office, while I was shown to the room by a young Afrikaans man called Jacques Human. He was the housekeeper and chef from the apartheid years, but in typical Madiba fashion had been asked to stay. The room was filled with heavily perfumed and made-up women. Jacques introduced me to them in Afrikaans. "Ladies, this is Melanie Verwoerd, a member of parliament accompanying President Mandela today. She is of course from" – he paused for dramatic effect – "the ANC". All the blue-eye-shadowed eyes turned to me with cold hatred. With a "Good luck!" Jacques made a hasty escape.

After a few seconds' silence and ignoring me, one woman, who was clearly the leader of the group, gave a little speech. "Ladies," she said sternly, "before Mr Mandela arrives, I want to remind you that we are here to make a point and send a message. So we will only speak Afrikaans today. If we are asked to speak English, or Mr Mandela speaks English, we will stick to Afrikaans." There were loud cheers of support, and the leader triumphantly pulled her jacket into place.

Thinking of Mandela practising his speech on the early-morning flight, I was furious, but before I could say anything, I spotted Madiba through the window on his way to the room. I quickly slipped out and warned him about their intentions. Madiba nodded, and then said: "Leave it to me." He walked into the room and greeted the first woman in the line up: "Aaah, goeie môre! Dis so 'n eer om u te ontmoet." ("Aaah, good morning! It is an honour to meet you"). She froze slightly, and then went blood red.

"I am so, so honoured to meet you, Mr President. So honoured!" she blurted out in English. The next one burst into tears. "I am so sorry what my people did to you," she cried while Madiba hugged her. The third woman spoke to him in Zulu! 

As Madiba invited the women to tea on the stoep, he caught my eye and winked. The rest of the morning was further proof of the Madiba magic. His speech went down a treat, and during question time he told the most emotional stories of his time in jail. He had all the women in tears, and even though he spoke mainly Afrikaans, they all spoke English. At the end of the meeting, there were lots of gifts, including koeksisters, which Madiba of course loved, an Afrikaans Bible, some Afrikaans music, and photo frames for the photos of his grandchildren. It was a hugely successful morning, and in the end, through Madiba's actions, the only point that was made was his enormous capacity to turn the most hardened opponents into admirers.

         (AFP file)

So yes, Madiba was every bit and more extraordinary in real life as he was portrayed in the media. He was principled, moral and yet deeply human. He laughed easily – also at himself. He was the most recognised person in the world, yet always humbly introduced himself as Nelson. The most powerful people on the planet sought out his company, but he enjoyed nothing more than to sit on the ground with little children and sing a very off-key version of "Twinkle, twinkle little star". He truly loved people and you only had to be in his presence for a few seconds to know he was simply the best that humanity has to offer. 

Happy Birthday, Madiba. The world and our country are so much poorer without you. We miss you.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA ambassador to Ireland. 

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