December is the month we celebrate, give gifts, and restore joy to the world regardless of religious beliefs. This year, for the first time, we will remind ourselves of Nelson Mandela, as the anniversary of his death is recalled.
He taught us much about reconciliation. But my memories of him are always infused with his laughter, his sense of fun, his delicious wit, his ability to make light of serious matters thereby bringing them into human perspective.
Most times it would start with a phone call.
“Hello Peter,” that familiar voice would boom, “how are you today?”
While always joyful to get the call, behind the happy emotion was one of trepidation: what does the old man want from me?
Bill Clinton once said – after Mandela had introduced him as one of the best politicians in the world from whom he could learn a lot of tricks – that South Africans didn’t know how lucky they were.
“Mr Mandela is a pretty good and tricky politician himself,” Clinton said with a chuckle.
“When he calls and says ‘Mr President’ I know there is a matter of State to discuss. But if he says ‘Hello Bill, how are you?’ I know this call is going to cost the United States a billion dollars.”
It sounds like bragging to say he called me often. But he did, because of my job as editor of The Star. His relationship with the media was excellent, friendly, courteous, never demanding, always suggesting.
And he did like to see his picture in the paper. At the end of one year, I presented him with a framed poster ‘page one’ made from all the times his photograph had been on the front page: 27 times in that year, making him our favorite pin-up.
Yet he still complained that we were not giving him and his political party, the ANC, the space they deserved.
“If I put a picture of you on every page, you would still want more. You politicians are all the same,” I grumbled.
“Not on the back page,” he said. “I don’t want to be with losing teams.”
He called to invite me to breakfast and I had my children with me so asked if they could come, naturally he agreed.
When he heard I had named my daughter after Helen Suzman, he told my Helen, then seven, that he hoped she would be a fighter like Suzman.
“I want to be a vet,” said my Helen matter-of-factly.
“Well, I have some cows in Qunu,” he said, “will you come look after them when I have retired to the hills?”
“I don’t think so,” said Helen, undiplomatically.
Once inside his Houghton home I told my two daughters to please play outside.
“Let them stay,” he said.
“No, they will break some Ming vase or other irreplaceable gift, they can play outside,” I said.
“I am the president, you can stay,” he told them.
“I’m your father, leave and play outside.”
“Tell your father I am also his President and am instructing him to let you stay…”
They stayed, and my youngest daughter, Julia, wandered about the sitting room touching everything as I kept a beady and rather anxious eye on her.
Halfway through our intense political discussion, she stood behind him, tugged his head backwards and kissed him on his forehead.
Astonished, he asked: “What was that for?”
She shrugged her six-year-old shoulders and said: “You looked sad and grumpy. I thought you needed a kiss.”
He loved Julia forever after. When he spotted me at functions he would call out “How’s Julia?” as his greeting.