At age 15, in the eighties, I was sent on an errand to the centre of Johannesburg. The city centre was more manageable in those days, with lots of open spaces for one to do window shopping, even those averse to the idea like myself. As I edged back towards Park Station for my train ride back home, I noticed a vendor who sold books, and I decided to end my window-shopping at his stall, if I can call it that. He had a few adventure novels spread out on the pavement.
As I looked closer, he whipped out two little booklets, looked at me and said, “a clever young man like you would surely be interested in these?”. I looked at the titles, ” The Communist Manifesto” and “Nelson Mandela’s Speech from the Treason Trial”. I couldn’t afford both so I settled for the Nelson Mandela Speech, and I immediately felt adventurous and part of some clandestine activity. Such works were banned at the time, and the gentleman selling them just said “be careful with that one”.
I dared not take it out of my shopping plastic bag on the train ride back home for fear of being spotted with a banned booklet. That evening I laid my eyes on Nelson Mandela’s words for the first time. “I am the First Accused. I hold a Bachelor Of Arts Degree….” I was to use the second line in all my cover letters when I applied for jobs. “I hold a Bachelor of Science Degree….” My first close encounter with Nelson Mandela.
On the 2nd of February 1990, I gathered along with the rest of my school mates in our TV room at our boarding school. When FW de Klerk made the announcement unbanning the ANC we all went mad, we were screaming so loud that I missed his next few words, only to catch “…will be released”. It could only have been in reference to Nelson Mandela because his comrades, Walter Sisulu, Wilton Mkwayi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and others had been released in 1989.
When his release came on 11 February 1990, we were packed into the same TV room. Not to start with anyway, we had a soccer game between ourselves the students, and the cooking staff at our school. We won the game 1- 0 but my mind could not understand how we could have chosen such a day to engage in a soccer match. In retrospect, it was a wise decision because although a time was not given for his actual release, people endured a long wait in front of the television. The soccer game had cut short our waiting time.
And then he came out. The hours of waiting were worth my second encounter with the man. Goosebumps, hairs on the back of my neck standing up, a hint of tears. The First Accused was out.
A couple of days after his release in 1990, our boarding school organized buses that were to ferry us to Orlando Stadium for his first rally in Soweto, Johannesburg. It was quite a hot day but singing struggle songs in the bus on the way to Orlando made the journey somewhat tolerable . We all knew we were part of history in the making. We got to the stadium and found thousands of other equally eager people and we joined together in the anxious wait for Tata. When the word finally filtered through that this was not to be the day we all went back to our buses deflated but still hopeful.
I was to miss the actual homecoming rally at Soccer City a few days later, but I kept a picture of the welcoming rally at the stadium on my wall. I had never seen the iconic stadium so full in my life.
In the early nineties protest marches were so common I cannot recall the exact march where I was in his presence for the first time. But I know that each time he took to the podium, it was the stuff of goosebumps, organized chaos and almost religious fervor. You always felt he was not an ordinary leader.
In 1991 the African National Congress(ANC) hosted a political meeting at the City Hall in Johannesburg. When I saw the posters with Nelson Mandela’s name alongside Thabo Mbeki and Bridget Mabandla I just knew I could not miss this one. The city hall, although rather large, provided a more intimate atmosphere than a soccer stadium. Bridget Mabandla spoke first, followed by Thabo Mbeki who quipped that he “didn’t understand how he allowed himself to be sandwiched between two lawyers”
When Nelson Mandela’s turn to speak came, the crowd literally brought the roof down with chants of “ANC,ANC,ANC!… for what seemed like an eternity. I hung onto every word he said. He had a very easy-going but deliberate manner in which he made his points. He ended this talk with a joke that he was to adapt and repeat to various audiences later. “Joe Slovo, Oliver Tambo and I were walking on a beach in Durban. We encountered a group of young ladies who listened as we explained things to them and seemed suitably charmed. They seemed very happy to have met us. As we turned to leave, one young lady asked me, Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo we know, but who are you?” I went home in awe of the self-effacing manner of a colossus who remained humble to the end.
During 1992, after negotiations between the ANC and the then apartheid government were suspended following the gruesome Boipatong Massacre, the ANC launched what was referred to as “rolling mass action”, a series of protest marches aimed at the government’s reluctance to deal with the obviously high levels of political violence in the country. Nelson Mandela maintained that there was a “Third Force” that the government was using to unsettle the party to ensure that the ANC always negotiated from a position of weakness.
Nelson Mandela addressed a dozen of the marches that followed.
In April 1993, following the assassination of ANC and South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, Mandela was beamed live into our living rooms from the South African Broadcasting Corporation studios to calm the country. The country was on the verge of a racial civil war, which was the motive of the right-wingers who planned Hani’s murder. Black people, for a few hours, were placed in a position where attacking everything white seemed justified.
That was until Nelson Mandela reminded us that “yes, it was white right wingers who assassinated Chris Hani, but it was also the eyes of a white woman who ensured that the assassins were apprehended”. That day, in 1993, Nelson Mandela became the de facto president of the country.
The rather sad event of Chris Hani’s demise was to provide me with my closest encounter with Nelson Mandela. The Young Christian Students(YCS), of which I was a member, were signatories of The Peace Accord, which was an attempt at stemming the tide of political violence across the country. As part of our activities, we became peace Marshalls at political events and you could identify us with our brightly coloured peace stickers with their dove-and-olive branch symbol.
As a clearly marked peace Marshall I formed part of the cordon that kept the general masses away from the dignitaries around Chris Hani’s grave. At one point the only thing that separated me from Nelson Mandela was Chris Hani’s grave. He had spectacles on, the kind that darkened in the sun, and I remember wondering if he could see me through those, amongst thousands of other mourners of course.
An unforgettable encounter I had with Nelson Mandela came in 1994, the year he officially became president. See, Mandela’s inauguration itself had been declared a national holiday, meaning we could all partake in the activities of the day. Sadly though, we had a very bitter Electrochemistry lecturer, a man from Eastern Europe who was always very quick to remind us that politics did not do him and his country any good, so he didn’t see the point of postponing an important test scheduled for the day after the inauguration.
The saddest part for me was that we had classmates, sadly white, who voted to not postpone the test. I was bitter and mad. But I was not going to be denied. I made the conscious choice to not study and be part of the inauguration. I went to a soccer match at Ellis Park, we played Zambia on what was to be an annual Nelson Mandela Challenge. He was inaugurated at the Union buildings in the morning and came to Ellis Park at half-time. It became the longest half-time break of any soccer match I’ve attended. He inspired South Africa to a 2-1 victory, at a time when we were the whipping boys of Africa. That game I believe, turned our team into continental champions two years later. People talk about Madiba Magic, that inexplicable bout of inspiration that he always seemed to impart onto sport stars whenever he came into contact with them, I believe that magic was born that day.
My Electrochemistry lecturer had wanted me to miss the birth of Madiba Magic. He was mad. I promptly failed his test but earned a memory I would not exchange for the world. I believe I’m not bitter at that Electrochemistry lecturer and my classmates because my politics were shaped by that man Mandela. He taught me to hate the system, never the people. That’s why I’ll always be grateful, and it’s a gift I’m passing onto my kids. No one is born evil.
You must be waiting for my encounter with him where he shakes my hand and says to me: ” Pleased to meet you young man”. I hoped for it, wished for it, alas, it never came.
I was to encounter him a few more times after his inauguration. Memorably at the 1996 Africa Cup Of Nations finals at the Soccer City stadium. By then, Madiba Magic was in full swing, with him having inspired our rugby team to World Cup victory the year before. Watch the Morgan Freeman/Matt Damon movie, Invictus, for the details.
I basked in Madiba’s magic at the soccer final. Kept the ticket stub and the memories.
I look back and think of instances where it could have gone horribly wrong, and I’m grateful. Grateful that he came out of twenty-seven years of incarceration without even the slightest hint of bitterness. He came out an even better leader than he went in. And I thank God for him. Because I’m a believer, I’m led to believe that the twenty-seven years were part of God’s bigger plan.
A plan to preserve Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela for South Africa and the World. A plan to preserve the man who dined with Kings and yet retained his common touch, as Rudyard Kipling says in his poem If.
When Nelson Mandela passed on last Thursday, I was in a cinema watching The Long Walk to Freedom. A fitting final encounter with a man I had idolized from my teenage years. And you thought you had to meet the man in person to have a close personal encounter with him? Think again!
Hamba Kahle , Madiba. You inspired me and millions of other people.