As South Africa celebrates former president Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday this month, FORBES AFRICA meets with some of the people who met, knew or worked with the anti-apartheid hero. The pages that follow are their fond memories of the statesman they even today call Madiba.
Sahm Venter, Author
“He saw people; he wasn’t one of those leaders who would see only famous people.”
South African author, Sahm Venter, spent most of her 25 years as a journalist covering the anti-apartheid struggle, before joining the Nelson Mandela Foundation as a senior researcher.
In June, with her colleague at the foundation, Vimla Naidoo, she released a book, I Remember Nelson Mandela, a collection of stories on the people who worked closely with Mandela.
“Everybody just loved him, and because he was such a decent person and because he saw people; he wasn’t one of those leaders who would see only famous people,” says Venter.
Mandela’s ability to pay attention to every single person in his presence was something Venter admired.
It was Christmas 1995, a year after South Africa gained independence with Mandela as head of state. Venter, along with five other journalists, spent Christmas day with him at the Transkei (in the southeastern region of South Africa).
“We had to meet him at like five in the morning and there were police guarding his house. He went and shook hands with every one of them and said ‘Merry Christmas’,” Venter recollects.
“When we walked through the villages for five hours, every single person and child who came out, he stopped, greeted and shook their hands. He asked for their name, asked how they are, what they are going to be when they are grow up, what class they are in at school.”
At the time, Venter quietly observed and remembers being blown away by Mandela’s humility.
A year later, at the launch of South Africa’s Constitution in Cape Town, Venter was among the few journalists who reported on the historical milestone.
“I was sitting next to this woman and I introduced myself from the SABC and she asked ‘are you Sahm Venter?’ and I said, ‘yes, why?’ And she said ‘well, the other day, Madiba called me up in front of these world leaders and introduced me to the whole crowd as you’. So he thought it was me because I had spent all this time with him,” Venter says, with a laugh.
“But that’s the kind of man he was, he valued everybody and everyone who worked with him felt that. And on top of it, he had a fantastic sense of humour,” she says.
Conroy Herandien, Former bodyguard
“Happy birthday Tata, come back please, urgently.”
Conroy Herandien was only 21 years old when he was tasked with protecting South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Mandela. The former policeman was recruited into the presidential unit as a bodyguard after Mandela became president in 1994.
Herandien says he got to travel 22 countries with Mandela and his staff during his presidential years.
But apart from meeting with delegates and other presidents, he got to witness some of Mandela’s most intimate moments on board the aircraft.
“When everything quietens down and you board the plane, that’s when the intimate part starts. You help him take off his shoes, make him comfortable, take out his hearing aids, switch them off, that’s where the personal came in,” Herandien says.
“He had this thing about newspapers. If you give him the newspapers in the morning, please don’t touch them! Don’t open page two or anything because when he saw that the newspaper was opened, he wouldn’t want to read it anymore. He was a disciplined man and like many elders, had his own mannerisms and was also very stubborn at times especially when it came to the security part of things,” shares Herandien, with a laugh.
At times, Mandela would make his own bed even though there was staff to do it. This was the discipline instilled in him from 27 hard years in prison.
Herandien says he learned this discipline from Madiba, and attests to applying it in his everyday life. “He helped us grow where we didn’t stand back for anybody and everyday was a learning curve,” he says.
Herandien can’t help but wish Mandela was still around. As South Africa celebrates what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday on July 18, Herandien recalls one particular experience celebrating Mandela’s birthday on one of their trips.
Shortly after midnight, the president’s plane landed at the Air Force Base Waterkloof in Pretoria, South Africa’s capital. Herandien and a colleague were one of the first to wish Mandela a happy birthday.
“No, no, thank you very much, very good, very good!” Herandien imitates Madiba’s response in his recognizable voice.
“That was him. He made everybody feel special,” Herandien says.
If he had the opportunity to wish Mandela one more time, he says these would be his words: “Happy birthday Tata, come back please, urgently.”
Tladi Ditshego, Former international affairs coordinator
“He gave me that ability to recognize people and feel good around people and to know them deeper.”
During apartheid, African National Congress (ANC) member Tladi Ditshego left South Africa to live in the United States (US) on exile. He studied at Georgetown University in Washington DC in 1990. At this stage, he was the treasurer of the ANC Youth League chapter based there. After Mandela left prison, one of his missions was to visit some of the ANC members living in exile. As a result, Mandela happened to visit Ditshego’s university too.
“When I met him at that time he was obviously such a revered leader, I was shivering,” says Ditshego.
Ditshego worked closely with him during his stay in the US.
“I advised him on certain things and participated in discussions before his interviews, I added value to some of his speeches and everything else and he says ‘come and work with me in Johannesburg’,” recalls Ditshego.
He consulted with his wife, processed his exile indemnity forms and did what anyone would have done if asked personally to work for Mandela.
1992 marked the beginning of his journey working with Mandela as his international affairs coordinator and they traveled to many countries together. One of his first assignments was to Senegal for a summit.
“That was my first international assignment with him and I didn’t know his modus operandi,” says Ditshego.
After meeting, greeting and networking alongside Mandela, Ditshego was called to meet with the president once the event ended.
“He said, ‘Tladi come over here’, and he sat down and said to me, ‘who was the lady we met dressed like this?’ And I said ‘I don’t know’,” Ditchego says.
“So he looked at me and said ‘ok, after that lady, there was another gentlemen’… And he would describe the way he was dressed. And I said, ‘but I don’t know the guy’, and he went on for the third and ‘I said I don’t know’ again.”
Ditshego was disappointed at not being able to identify any of the people Mandela asked him about. “He might have felt that I was very stupid, you know, and I couldn’t sleep that night,” he says.
The next day Mandela asked him the same type of questions after they met more people at an event. This time, Ditshego went prepared. He carried a notebook and wrote down every detail about each person Mandela interacted with.
Ditshego narrates the conversation he had with Mandela afterwards.
“Tladi, how was the day?”
‘Tata, I think it went on very well.’
“Remember we met a lady dressed like this…”
“Oh, ‘that’s Penelope from…’ ”
Ditshego had everything written down and had an answer for every person Mandela asked him about.
When they returned to South Africa, Mandela even told Ditshego’s boss, at the time Thabo Mbeki.
“Ey, Tladi is so smart, he knows everybody in the world and at that conference, he knew everybody,” Mandela said to Mbeki.
From then on, Ditshego’s confidence was restored. Not only did he learn to pay attention to detail whilst working with Mandela, but it is what he now applies in his day-to-day life.
“He gave me that ability to recognize people and feel good around people and to know them deeper, rather than to just say ‘hi, how are you?’” says Ditshego, who is now an entrepreneur and CEO at J&J Group in Johannesburg.
Vimla Naidoo, Former staff
“I hope wherever Madiba is, he just feels the love, not just from his staff or family, but just South Africa and the world.”
It was in September 1995 that Vimla Naidoo first started working for the presidency. She was in the protocol team and her first task was to put together a reception that Mandela was hosting for Pope John Paul II. Minsters, the cabinet and several distinguished guests were invited to the prestigious reception.
It being Naidoo’s second day on the job, she was excited and nervous working behind the scenes. The event went smoothly and it was just about to end.
Little did she know she was about to meet two of the most respected men in the world.
“Our director at the protocol, said ‘come’ and I was like ‘where are we going?’ And he said ‘we are going to join this line of people greeting Madiba and the Pope’,” recollects Naidoo.
“I was so shocked but I was elated. I mean it was my second day on the job. I thought I was going to go through a couple of months before I ever got to see Madiba!
“I walked right past the Pope with my hand stretched out to greet Madiba, and he looked at me and he laughed and said, ‘aren’t you going to greet the Pope’? And I thought ‘oh my gosh, I’m going to be fired on my second day at work’. So I did a double take, went back, shook the Pope’s hand, I think, and he said something like ‘bless you, child’.”
A shy Naidoo walked back to Mandela, who then asked her, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school?’, trying the gauge his new staff member’s age.
“So he just kind of made me feel more comfortable and at ease. And I thought I royally screwed up. And so that always sticks with me,” says Naidoo, never able to forget that first encounter with him. After staying on in the presidency for a few years, it was normal meeting the iconic president most days.
“I think just to let him know how much we love him and how he will always be a part of our hearts…” Naidoo says, getting emotional. We pause the interview for a bit.
“It’s such an emotional experience and thinking about Madiba and talking about him I mean, especially during this time of the year…And thinking about other birthdays that we’ve shared, you know, and we’ve all been running around like worker bees trying to make sure that he has a great time,” she continues.
“I hope wherever Madiba is, he just feels the love, not just from his staff or family, but just South Africa and the world.”
Jay Naidoo, Former minister of reconstruction and development
“His remarkable magic of connecting with children was in fact one of the greatest triumphs that he could teach us.”
At an event commemorating Nelson Mandela, Jay Naidoo, a political and social activist and founding general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), shares one of the funniest moments involving Mandela and Naidoo’s then two-year-old son Kami.
In 1994, when South Africa had just gained independence, Naidoo was appointed minister of reconstruction and development in Mandela’s cabinet.
Mandela was addressing the people during the launch of a campaign on how the leadership and communities could work together.
Naidoo attended the launch with his wife Lucie Page and Kami.
“Madiba is making the main speech. He is opening, and Kami decided that when Madiba is making his speech, he is going to go there and stand in front of everybody and tug Madiba’s trousers’,” Naidoo narrates.
Lucie and Naidoo looked at each other wondering which parent would pick up Kami tugging the president’s pants, whilst he was speaking.
“So I said ‘ok I will volunteer’. The first time I go and I take him and I put him on my lap. But no, he is not content with that,” Naidoo says.
Oblivious to the important speech Mandela was delivering, the little boy returned to him. This time, Lucie fetched Kami.
But her efforts were unsuccessful.
Kami went after Mandela a third time.
But this time, Mandela responded.
“He takes him in and puts him on the podium and continues the speech. Kami didn’t say a word.” Naidoo laughs.
“So Madiba, bless his soul, he loved children. There was a child inside of him that he missed for those 27 years. That is his greatest loss; the laughter of children, the touch of children, the love and innocence and the love of children. So his remarkable magic of connecting with children was in fact one of the greatest triumphs that he could teach us. He was a great teacher,” says Naidoo, fondly remembering Madiba.
Naidoo wished that Mandela’s love for children would transcend through society. However, the post-apartheid transition wasn’t easy especially for the politicians who had the task of rebuilding the country.
“Madiba once had a conversation with me when he talked about the reconstruction and development program of the soul and I said to him, ‘Madiba, I know we need to heal but they aren’t measuring us on healing, they are measuring us on how many houses, jobs and schools we are building’.”
Only now does Naidoo realize that “it was a stupid mistake, because we didn’t do the work of healing, first within ourselves, because we all carry this wound”.
This was something he believes Mandela was trying to teach them all.
Naidoo ends by saying: “If only we could just learn that and live with love and compassion and generosity, the triumph of what Madiba represented over fear and prejudice and racism….”