Mandela and the Liberian president who came to stay

It began with the Blue Train, a moving five-star hotel on a par with the Orient Express. Billed as “a window to the soul of South Africa”, its luxury suites offer DVD systems and long hot baths, while the dining cars serve banquets of Karoo lamb, ostrich fillet and Knysna oysters.

In 1997, to celebrate the Blue Train’s multimillion-rand refit, the then president Nelson Mandela invited some celebrity guests aboard its maiden trip. Among them were Jemima and Imran Khan, Hollywood actor and activist Mia Farrow, music producer Quincy Jones, Chinese actor Tony Leung, and supermodel Naomi Campbell.

The long passage from Pretoria to Cape Town was followed by dinner at the presidential residence, Genadendal, on September 26. There the group was joined by Charles Taylor, who a month earlier had been elected president of Liberia. The events of that night would have remained secret but for the presence of Farrow, who came forward after learning of Taylor’s trial last year.

A now infamous photo, displayed in court on Thursday, shows Mandela in the centre. Beside him is Taylor, and beside him, Campbell.

Campbell’s former agent, Carole White, has claimed that Graça Machel, now Mandela’s wife, was annoyed that Taylor had been invited. But as South African president it was not unusual for Mandela to entertain a new African head of state, even one who, as a charismatic warlord, triggered Liberia’s civil war eight years earlier.

Ngwenya said it was inevitable as Mandela had come into contact with some unsavoury characters: “So many good angels and devils have met Mandela.”

The president has never been afraid to ruffle feathers with his political associations. In 1990, he gave public support to Colonel Moammar Gadaffi of Libya, President Fidel Castro of Cuba and Yasser Arafat, chairperson of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, whom he described as a “comrade in arms”.

Thanking Gadaffi for his backing in the anti-apartheid struggle, Mandela was once quoted as saying: “Those who feel we should have no relations with Gadaffi, have no morals. Those who feel irritated by our friendship with President Gadaffi can go jump in the pool.”

Along with his trademark colourful shirts, Mandela also has a taste for celebrity, having welcomed Campbell, who described him as her “honourary grandfather”, Michael Jackson and the Spice Girls.

Political commentator Andile Mngxitama, publisher of New Frank Talk, said he did not blame Mandela for hosting Taylor that night in Cape Town. “African leaders are given the respect that befits their office,” he said. “I don’t think we should say Mandela should never have met Taylor. Even now Taylor is still on trial and has not been found guilty.”

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