Meeting Mandela: A close encounter with true greatness

Former president Nelson Mandela. (Alexander Joe, AFP)

Former president Nelson Mandela. (Alexander Joe, AFP)

Most people fear that they are terrible parents. It is a nasty business that can bring about awful bouts of insecurity. Part of the reason for this is that there is no barometer or paycheck to act as a gauge of performance levels.
You plough in and hope for the best. We want to get the basics right. We love, affirm, feed, clothe and educate our children to the best of our abilities. I may have many failings as a parent, but the one thing that was non-negotiable was to encourage my son to love reading, books and words.

I'm relieved and thrilled to say that at the age of 10, he is a voracious reader and something of a budding poet. While clasping a heaving book, much too large for his small hands, he is fond of saying readers are leaders and leaders are readers. And I smile.

The second thing I managed to do, by virtue of the public profile that a career in broadcasting has afforded me, was give my son the opportunity to meet one of the greatest leaders of our lifetime. I was master of ceremonies at an event for The Mandela Rhodes Foundation in 2008, to celebrate talented and brilliant young South Africans who had benefitted from study-abroad programmes through the partnership of the foundation and Unilever. The organisers had scheduled a lunch ahead of the evening function where the former president would meet the alumni. True to his insistence on and passion for education, Mandela was going to step out of retirement for a few hours to interact with and congratulate the scholars of the past 10 years. And one of the organisers asked if I'd like to attend the luncheon.

I'd met Nelson Mandela numerous times as a young reporter, when he was president. He chided me at one such encounter, telling me at a press conference that I was too pretty and too young to ask the King of Lesotho Letsie III awkward questions about South Africa's embarrassing military excursion there. Mandela had requested at the start of the briefing that we pose questions to him rather than the monarch, who was visibly upset about South Africa's military misadventures. Ever the strategist and diplomat, it was clear that whatever the king said would upset any delicate detente Madiba was trying to negotiate.

Ten years had passed since that encounter, but I jumped at an opportunity I thought would mean the world to my five-year-old son. My hope was that he would reflect on this seminal moment in his later years and that it would inspire him to live by the ideals of so towering a leader. When morning came, I told my son that he would meet Mandela and that he was an incredibly lucky little boy. At the time he only knew of him as the "Tatomkhulu who was once our president". I tried to explain as best one can to a five-year-old that he was much more than that, and encouraged him to be confident and not shy should Mandela speak to him.

The room was full of spruced up and tittering Rhodes scholars who were equally excited to meet their benefactor and hero. We were asked to stand in the front row so Madiba could see my son. We need not have worried because he walked into the room, took one look at my little boy and his face lit up and he smiled with all his teeth. I started crying. He broke all protocol and shook off his security detail and made a beeline for him. His booming, warm voice filled the room, "Hello young man, how are you?"

"I'm fine, thanks sir. How are you?" the little tyke responded.

"What is your name?" And he gave it in a loud, confident, assured voice beyond his years, just as we had rehearsed. Madiba recognised his surname and told him he must be from Butterworth. "I went to school with a Bikitsha chap". He went on, by which time my little one was at a loss as to what to say. Through bleary eyes, I nodded in agreement, that that chap was indeed my grandfather. Mandela shook hands with my son, smiling all the while, and then made his way back to the podium. The rest of the event went by in a blur.

Every now and again, my son asks me to take out the photographs from that day and tell him this story. He is immensely proud of that encounter. And I hope it will always be a reminder to him of the man's humility, kindness, patience and leadership. Enkosi Tata.

Client Media Releases