February 26: My Madiba day
Unlike most South Africans, who think of Nelson Mandela on his day of release, Charles Leonard thinks fondly of Madiba on February 26 every year.
Bill Bryson starts his hilarious travelogue about the American Midwest, The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, thus: "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to."
It is early on Sunday morning, February 26 1990, and three of us, photographer Cedric, friend Anna and journalist me, are doing the inverse with a South African city, which by all accounts is not dissimilar to Bryson's home town. We were going to Bloemfontein. Somebody had to.
As you know, Bloem is the capital of the Free State. The sparsely populated province is so flat that, some say, you can see tumbleweeds, tax collectors and other troubles coming towards you two days away.
So what were we wild-haired radicals doing heading into the rural heartland to crew-cut Bloem on a Sunday morning, instead of sleeping off our hangovers? We actually wanted to go to Bloemfontein, along with thousands of others, mainly people from surrounding townships and poor mineworkers from the province's rich gold mines, because Nelson Mandela – the man who 15 days earlier was released from prison after 27 years of incarceration by the apartheid state – was speaking at an ANC rally there. We were not going to miss that for the world!
The New South Africa, as we called our country for a period after the ANC's unbanning, Mandela's release and the end of apartheid, was to understate greatly, an unusual place where the ironies were frequent and tasty.
One such delicious irony was the venue for the Mandela rally later that afternoon: the Vrystaat Rugby Stadion (Free State Rugby Stadium) in the heart of white, militaristic and militarised Bloemfontein. The area housed predominantly apartheid supporters who at the time – a mere four years before the ANC democratically took over the government in 1994 – still thought that the cracks at their power-base could simply be fixed with a bit of solid ideological cement. And rugby was the symbol for white South Africa of its presumed physical superior strength and dominance over the country's black population. So as I walked into the stadium for the Mandela rally, I had a flashback to the last time I was at the Free State Stadium, 10 years earlier in 1980. Like most 18-year-old white boys at the time, I was not brave enough to dodge two years of compulsory military conscription after school, and so I found myself based in Bloemfontein.
One Saturday morning in mid-winter, the platoon sergeant barked into our bungalow: "File in, you're gonna watch rugby!" They marched us to the stadium with its all-white crowd, where we froze our butts off watching third-rate rugby (Free State played crap rugby then). Fast forward 10 years to 1990 and it was, as they say, a different ball game. This time I wanted to be in the stadium to see one of my ultimate heroes. This time, there were very few white faces in the 30 000-strong crowd. Among those few were seven grumpy-looking, thick-necked white guys sitting on their own, looking like an impersonation of the Free State rugby team's forwards, except they were a day late and a member short for the previous day's match (rugby has eight forwards).
Although wearing civilian clothes, their droopy moustaches were a give-away – those guys never did undercover very well – and the ANC marshals politely asked them to leave. Pity they did not stay, because Madiba delivered a message of peace and hope that afternoon that stuck with me ever since. He said that Afrikaners did not need to fear for their future under a non-racial ANC government. I could hear from the conviction in his voice that he meant it. And with hindsight of course, he proved it.
At the end of the proceedings everyone stood and started singing our hauntingly beautiful liberation anthem, Nkosi Sikelel'I Afrika (God bless Africa). As we prepared to leave, one of the ANC leaders – it was a young Terror Lekota – ran across the rugby field towards us and asked us three Jo'burgers to follow him to the stage where Mandela was waiting.
As we approached he came down the steps straight towards me with an outstretched hand! Shaking my hand he said: "We appreciate the respect you show to our anthem. I saw other journalists moving around while we were singing Nkosi Sikelel'I Afrika but you sang along with the necessary respect."
For a full two minutes he told us how welcome we as whites were in the new South Africa and that we should never fear the country once the ANC was in charge. Flabbergasted, I could not utter a word. I became, like many before me and millions after me, a Madiba groupie. As I stumbled away with a happy grin on my face, I wondered what my platoon sergeant would have said.
As a journalist I was privileged to meet Madiba again over the years, including on April 27 1994, when South Africa voted for democracy. I worked for the UK's Channel Four News then and we did an interview with Madiba in what was then known as Shell House in downtown Jo'burg. The man who facilitated the interview was Carl Niehaus – remember him? I still have the picture of me, a bunch of poms and the amazing Madiba. Niehaus took the picture.
In July 2005, I encountered Madiba again. He was still celebrating his 87th birthday. When you are Nelson Mandela, everyone wants to celebrate with you, a fact the organisation that was responsible for what they term his "living legacy", the Nelson Mandela Foundation, was well aware of.
At the first event of his birthday week, Mandela introduced some of his new "46664 ambassadors" to the media. This project was named after his prisoner number, 46664, given him on Robben Island.
That event was the first time in about a year that I saw Mandela in person again and it was a massive shock. He looked frail. He shuffled slowly, his ankles looked swollen and his hoarse voice tapered off when he spoke to the media. The ends of his sentences were blown away by a light, chilly wind. Alas, Mandela looked mortal. Since my dear dad's death early that year, I had become a big softie when it came to people I care about. I knew I was not the only person there who feigned a sniffy cold when they saw Mandela looking old and fragile.
Fortunately, the dear grandfather of the nation recovered. But he is not getting any younger and we have had a few health scares since then, the latest in December 2012.
Like most South Africans, I was fearing the inevitable. We were all worried, about losing him, for a range of reasons.
My one reason came within a context – a month earlier I lost my other parent, my dear mom. She was ill, weak and finally gave up because she was missing my dad so much. Even though we were expecting it, it still was a terrible shock.
I was truly relieved when Madiba was eventually discharged. I was certainly not ready to lose another beloved parent figure.
Like many other February 26s I am thinking of Madiba again, and I try to imagine him the way he was when he shook my hand back in the Vrystaat Stadion. It is hard, not because he has changed, but because we have.