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Mandela Through Their Eyes

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Documenting Madiba

Sahm Venter, Author

Sahm Venter. Photography by Karen Mwendera

“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.

Protecting Madiba

Conroy Herandien, Former bodyguard

Conroy Herandien. Photograph by Karen Mwendera.

“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.”

Impressing Madiba

Tladi Ditshego, Former international affairs coordinator

Tladi Ditshego. Photograph by Karen Mwendera.

“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.

Idolizing Madiba

Vimla Naidoo, Former staff

Vimla Naidoo. Photograph by Karen Mwendera.

“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.”

Healing Madiba

Jay Naidoo, Former minister of reconstruction and development

Jay Naidoo. Photograph by Karen Mwendera.

“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….”

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A Statement On The Skyline

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South Africa is on its way to another record with Africa’s tallest building.


A new superstructure is making its mark in Sandton in the heart of Africa’s richest square mile.

The $3 billion project is expected to be completed by the end of 2019 and beat Carlton Centre’s reign as the tallest building in Africa since 1973.

The 223-meter, 50-storey Carlton Centre in Johannesburg has for 46 years stood the test of time as a skyscraper dominating the skyline in South Africa and the continent.

The new building coming up in Sandton will be a 55-storey, 234-meter classical Italian eponym paying homage to Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian artist of the Renaissance era.

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It adds to the luxurious portfolio of hotels by the Legacy Living property group.

As The Leonardo rising from the bedrock and gradually etches its presence on the skyline, Gijs Foden, Director of Retail Management in Legacy Living, says it is a beacon that represents economic growth far beyond the surface.

“From a development perspective, everyone knows about the crisis in construction. There is light at the end of the tunnel, through a tough economy. It is a tough market and we are working our way out of it. We are going up. We are part of the beacon of hope through tough times,” he says.

South Africa has nine out of 20 of the continent’s tallest buildings, amounting to 1,277 meters in total and 5,000 steps up a staircase.

While most of these buildings were erected in the 1900s and early 2000s, records have stayed the same.

Johannesburg’s Ponte City Tower standing as the third tallest building in Africa, coming in after Kenya’s Britam Tower at 200 meters.

The Leonardo was initially set out to be a mixed-use building with 33 floors but has since escalated to dominating the South African skyscraper inventory.

Foden says the development will not only provide investment opportunities for South Africa, but it will celebrate African authenticity.

Set to be completed in the year of Leonardo Da Vinci’s 500th death anniversary, African art will be the center-piece of the tower.

You look out of the window and that is your canvas. Internally, the art in the building is African art.

“We are supporting the African artist, it is what it is. The art defines the building. Keeping the essence of the building and at the same time the warmth and lifestyle will be an attraction, irrespective of the Italian name,” Foden says.

By following due processes in getting the height approved, overtaking Carlton Centre’s record, Foden says: “It [Carlton Centre] is still an icon and no one has been able to beat it. It is different times and it is also different generations. This is our generation which is going to be a timeless building for many years to come. It is an urban flight.”

However, the record by The Leonardo may be short-lived as yet another African skyscraper may overshadow it by the end of 2021.

 The Pinnacle, currently being built in Nairobi’s financial hub, is set to be a 70-storey mixed-use development.

According to a yearly study published by The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), Beijing’s China Zun 528-meter skyscraper was the tallest building completed in 2018, making it the eighth-tallest building in the world.

 The study reports that 16 new buildings entered the 100 tallest lists in 2018; up from 14 in 2017, 76% of these were in Asia.

Co-Arc Director, Francois Pienaar, says the influx of skyscrapers in Africa is a way for property investors and developers to exploit the options of sites.

“Sites can become very valuable. There are a lot of things to do with money – [for] better returns for the investment of the land, and that is why people go up. It takes quite a lot of courage, to go 55 floors.

You need to have a client who is inspired to do it. Especially, with the volatility of Africa,” Pienaar says. 

Despite the competition for a piece of the sky, none of the 2019 projected top 30 tallest buildings will supersede the world’s tallest building in Dubai at a towering 829.8 meters with 163 floors above the ground.

The Burj Khalifa has boasted this record since its completion in 2010.

According to Pienaar, the opportunity to build a structure of this magnitude does not come by every day in Africa.

Breaking his 30-storey skyscraping record, Pienaar, who is currently working on The Leonardo, adds:  “It takes a lot more when it comes to delivering services and the kinds of aesthetics that take place.

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“The building has a skin outside which is imported from Spain. It is a new invention from Spain that reduces the heat load on the glass. We have produced a building that is responsible for the climate. We are trying to keep the building energy-efficient,” he says.

As the global economic outlook develops, there is fierce competition for a piece of the sky.

The taller the building, the more money it pulls in.

As the South African economy picks itself up, the lingering shadow of the Leonardo will represent a symbol of growth and a new dawn.

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Lab-grown Diamonds: Never Mined, It’s Man-Made

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Turns out there is literally no difference between lab-grown diamonds and natural diamonds, well, apart from the price.


Ever wondered what the difference between lab-produced diamonds and natural diamonds was? Well, nothing. They are exactly the same.

As with most things of value, a great deal of information has been produced over the years about the price of diamonds. In short, many believe the real price of diamonds is far lower than what ‘big business’ would have us believe and that it is driven up by our insatiable hunger and the social importance we place on the stones.

In line with this, there is a widely-held belief that they are not rare and the market is being deliberately controlled to create the façade that they are difficult to produce. Therefore, their price is dictated by the fact that they symbolize the most enduring of all human emotions – love.

 With that out of the way, in recent times, society has developed a pragmatic relationship with diamonds, rather than a romantic one that has long sustained the industry.

It might be that we live in the era of instant gratification or that we have stopped romanticising the idea of waiting millions of years for the precious stone, but more people have embraced the idea of purchasing lab-grown diamonds.

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Unlike an imitation gem like cubic zirconia, it has the same physical characteristics and chemical components as a natural diamond but production time is much shorter, enabling producers to create it in a matter of weeks.

Lab-grown diamonds producer Ross Reid offers FORBES AFRICA a very sobering perspective with the following analogy to describe man-made diamonds.

“If a couple can’t fall pregnant using conventional methods, they do IVF where the baby’s origin of life is manmade. Is that not a real baby when it’s born?”

The room falls silent as all contemplate this question.

“So by that logic, it is a real diamond,” Reid states emphatically.

Reid is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Inception Diamonds, One of South Africa’s first Diamond companies to offer lab-grown diamonds and fine jewelry.

The world’s leading diamond producer, De Beers, however, has a different perspective.

“We view natural diamonds and lab-grown diamonds as very different products as they have completely different production processes. Natural diamonds are created in the earth, under intense heat and pressure over billions of years. Each diamond is rare, finite and unique,” says Bianca Ruakere, a De Beers Group spokesperson.


De Beers Lightbox range. Picture: De Beers

Reid says he recognizes the market potential for global growth in being able to offer conflict-free, environmentally-friendly lab-grown diamonds, especially to the millennial market.

“With the creation of laboratory-grown diamonds, it allows you to offer the consumer the same thing optically, physically, and chemically at a big discount. So you can have the same beauty, the same hardness, the same look and the same feel for less money,” Reid says.

Large diamond producers have also recognized the same potential.

De Beers Group has been producing synthetic diamonds for industrial purposes for more than 50 years. “Last year, we launched Lightbox in the United States to market a range of fun, fashion jewelry using lab-grown diamonds. They are accessibly priced, and a distinct product offering compared with natural diamonds,” Ruakere says.

 Price is not the only reason that encourages the market to opt for lab-grown diamonds. They are also other ethical factors such as having a guarantee that the rock on your finger is conflict-free.

 Shogan Naidoo, who proposed to his fiancé, Preba Iyavoo, on Valentine’s Day at the popular independent cinema house, The Bioscope, did so with a healthy bank balance and clean conscience.

They were traditionally engaged in July last year, so by the time the ring engagement happened, Iyavoo was caught completely off-guard and was pleasantly surprised.

“Shogan is the most endearing person, but he’s not romantic in the slightest,” says a giddy Iyavoo, who recalls the proposal that happened in a filled theater, with a movie Naidoo had created just for her.

The couple are besotted with their lab-grown diamond. Naidoo says after doing exhaustive research to find the perfect ring to propose with, all conventional options had failed him.

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 He says his final ring choice far exceeded his expectations in price and design. Naidoo explains that Iyavoo has a very specific preference and that he was not willing to compromise in getting her the perfect ring but the one he initially wanted was in the range of R80,000 ($5,500).

  “We were planning a wedding and we’d just bought a house,” he says. The exorbitant cost of retail rings led him to search out of the box, and eventually the box returned with the perfect gem.

 The couple who lead a very environmentally-conscious lifestyle, say they are especially proud to be the custodians of this ring because they are guaranteed it’s conflict-free and no miners were exploited.

 Reid says he has to grapple with a great deal of scepticism because many are not ready to fully embrace the idea of lab-grown diamonds despite their advantages.

“The Federal Trade Commission has changed the definition of a diamond. It does not need to come from the ground.

“We have opened up the market for people to be able to afford beautiful pieces without compromising on quality,” Reid says.

Change is inevitable and with that, there will always be those resistant to it. But one thing is for sure, society’s relationship with diamonds are changing.

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A New Language Doesn’t Hamper Kids Learning. Other Things Do

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South Africa is a linguistically and culturally diverse country. There are 11 official languages and several other minority languages. But English continues to be preferred as the language of learning and teaching.

Many South African children are still in the process of learning English by the time they first start going to school. In a single English-medium classroom, one can find children with various levels of English proficiency; from children with English as their mother tongue to children who have never learnt English before.

This situation poses a range of challenges for both the teacher and the children. One of the biggest challenges is that a certain level of proficiency in English is required for the children to be able to perform well academically in an English-medium school. It’s a widely known factthat academic success is very much dependent on language competence and proficiency.

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This means that there’s a great need to understand how language develops in children’s early school careers. It is also important to understand the cognitive mechanisms that underlie language learning. To further explore how this happens in the early years of schooling I did a study involving pre-primary children in an English-medium school in Cape Town.

The group consisted of children who were still learning English as well as children whose mother tongue was English. The children were very diverse – there was a total of nine different home languages in the group of children who were still learning English.

The findings showed that the ability of children to develop their language skills didn’t depend on whether they were proficient when they started out. Their ability to learn and advance – or not – was in fact dependent on a range of other factors, none of which had to do with English language proficiency.

The findings

The research aimed to understand the link between language and working memory development. I did this by tracking how working memory developed for the children chosen to take part in the study.

Working memory is the ability to store and use information in the short-term and is important for our everyday lives. For example, we use working memory when we need to remember an address that we just heard while we are looking for a pen to write it down. Working memory also underlies many important academic competencies, like reading and mathematics.

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The children were broken into two groups: those with English as their primary language, and those still learning English. They were given the same tasks; these were an English language assessment and working memory tasks. They were assessed three times over the course of the year – at the beginning, middle and end.

The results showed that both groups improved over the year on the assessment of English language abilities. The results also revealed that great improvements were made in language development during the first year of formal schooling.

Results from the working memory tasks indicated that children who were still learning English, as well as the children who have English as their mother tongue, performed the same on these tasks and achieved comparable scores. Children in both groups saw their language abilities and working memory abilities improve over the year.

The most interesting finding is that the route, or trajectory, the children’s cognitive and language development followed was the same for both groups, regardless of the English abilities they had at the beginning.

Importantly, the result that working memory scores between groups were comparable also indicated that the amount of knowledge of English that a child had didn’t affect their working memory abilities.

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What this points to is that, if a child’s working memory scores are low and the trajectory of the development is not the same as their peers, there may be cause for concern. In this case, the children should be referred to an occupational or speech therapist for further assessment. Our research shows the fact that they’re struggling can’t simply be explained away as a “symptom” of the child not knowing English well enough.

Falling through the cracks

Studies like these are important for giving professionals better ways of seeing if a child has a disorder or is only struggling because they have not acquired a sufficient level of English yet.

In the context of a classroom with various languages and proficiencies of English, it is easy for a child with a disorder to be overlooked.

Along with the under-resourced schools and over-burdened teachers, heterogeneity among learners results in them not receiving the support that they need, be it academic or linguistic. Those whose primary language is English as well as those learning English suffer alike. The upshot is clearly seen in the worsening educational crisis in South Africa.

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