The first time I met Nelson Mandela

Shaking hands with Nelson Mandela

I remember the day this photo was taken in 1996. It was the first time I met Madiba. He came to the newsroom of ‘The Sunday Times‘ to meet the staff, where I was the Internet Editor.

I had gone to collect a fax from the bank of fax machines (yes, fax machines!) near Editorial Secretary, Sandra Hattingh’s desk, which was located at the newsroom entrance. Editor Mike Robertson at left, was milling around awaiting Madiba’s arrival. And he walked in with his security detail.

After welcoming President Mandela, Mike introduced me. And the conversation took an unexpected turn.

“You are too young to work. You must finish school first! It is very important,” he told me. I could barely register my surprise when he turned to Mike and continued, “Mike, it is good to give young people opportunities but you must encourage them first to finish their schooling.”

By then I recovered myself and responded. “President Mandela, I am not as young as I look. I have just returned to South Africa after finishing my masters degree in the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship.”

Madiba took a reappraising look at me and said, “Very good, very good.” He then moved on to meet the rest of the staff.

Towards the end of his visit, he reached the cubicles where our small team was located. I introduced him and after greeting each person he turned to me.

“Have you found a worthy young man?” He enquired. Unclear on what he meant and unprepared, I did a goldfish impression with mouth opening but nothing coming out. Did he mean our team was gender unbalanced? It’s true we had more females than males by one person, but… “You are young and should be working as hard on finding a good husband,” he counseled. I believe I managed to mumble something partially coherent like,”Thank you for the advice, Mr. President,” but maybe not. I mean, who would have expected that?!

So began a theme that characterized our conversation on every future occasion on which I met him. I doubt he actually remembered me from the thousands of people he’d met, but like a concerned grandparent, he’d quiz me on my marital progress every time! Many years later I was at an event at The Saxon Hotel, a¬†once private home where Mandela stayed after his release from prison in 1990 and where he wrote his autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom.‘ The late photographer, Joe Sefale witnessed Madiba’s delight when he stopped as he passed by, greeted us both and enquired yet again. This time he got the answer he had been advocating for.

One day when I visit his grave, I think I’ll kneel down and whisper, “Tata, you’ll be very happy to know that now I also have a wonderful son!” I imagine him saying, “Very good, very good.”

 

 

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