UK & World News

  • 6 December 2013, 6:56

Nelson Mandela: A Glimpse Of The True Leader

It became horribly obvious long before the official South African government announcement that Nelson Mandela was slowly dying.

Slowly and subtly the tone of coverage on the radio stations, television channels and newspapers began to change - as it also did in the conversations around the country between concerned citizens.

In a culture where it is considered taboo to talk about the death of an elder statesman, it seemed the country's psyche was slowly coming round to the inevitable ... a realisation that the man they call Tata (or father) was mortal just like the rest of us.

I am not ashamed to say I have retold the story of when I met the great man more times than my friends care to mention - and I have bored my family endlessly with it through the years.

It remains one of the most special moments of my professional career.

Some of the core details are hazy. I had to look up the date, for instance.

And at one stage I had convinced myself I was pregnant when I met and interviewed him (maybe I'd just put on weight?).

I cannot for the life of me remember much about what I asked him during this interview, in the course of an audience I certainly did not deserve to have with this man.

But I remember certain parts of the meeting like it happened a few hours ago.

I remember being knocked out by his charm, how friendly and approachable he was, and how kind he was to me.

If that sounds like I was starstruck, how right you are. I most certainly was.

I had spent an anxious few hours beforehand desperately trying to ensure I actually met and talked to this enormous world figure.

That involved begging, coercing, pleading with the organisers of the CBI, whose conference Mr Mandela was speaking at, to allow this inexperienced, rough-round-the-edges reporter to interview him.

Nelson Mandela had been freed about three years earlier and within a year would go on to lead his country into its first democratic elections and become the first black president of the Republic of South Africa.

He was in Britain to try to encourage business people to support South Africa by investing in a country which had been the subject of sanctions for years.

I had watched the television coverage as a young journalist in the Sky newsroom in London as he emerged from 27 years in captivity - holding his then-wife's hand high in the air as a form of joint salute to the thousands waiting for their first glimpse of him.

I had desperately wanted to be there, desperately wanted to report on this momentous event.

It wasn't good enough to watch on television while others did the job.

I wanted to be there, to smell the atmosphere, to be a part of it.

I made a promise to myself that I would be there at the elections even if I had to fund my own way there.

I never for a minute imagined I'd get the chance to meet the man himself before the elections.

But there he was - in the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in Westminster in the middle of a British winter - and so was I.

It was October 1993 and I had a filthy cold and cough.

It was the sort of cough which made normal healthy people retch on hearing and veer away from you.

And it was the sort of cold which meant my eyes were constantly streaming and my nostrils were red and cracked from constant wiping and blowing.

I looked and felt wretched and sounded even worse.

He was standing chatting to some of the organisers when I entered the room, but he immediately turned to greet me giving me a big wide smile and stretching out his hand in welcome.

I had only taken two steps inside but he had obviously heard the sniffling or maybe it was the red nose which was the giveaway.

But with a couple of quick strides, he had bounded towards me, taking my right hand in his and putting his other arm around my shoulders, saying: "You don't sound well at all. You shouldn't be working. You should be looking after yourself."

I am a tall woman, but he seemed to tower over me.

I remember being a little bit thrown by this very tactile approach by such an international figure and South Africa's future president - but feeling utterly delighted at the same time.

He chatted and joked with me as though we had been friends for years.

Was this the practised charm of an astute politician? I prefer to think it was a glimpse of the real Mandela - a genuine man with a knee-jerk kindness and an incredible ability to put you at your ease.

A man with little airs and graces despite being one of the best-known figures in the world at this time.

A man who made everyone feel just that little bit special.

I have no doubt everyone he talked to that day felt the same.

Certainly the business people I talked to afterwards seemed to be swooning with the Mandela effect.

Yet when the camera started recording, he switched into "pro" mode, talking seriously and earnestly about how South Africa was on track for democracy and now was the time to invest in his homeland.

He had a job - and chatty, kind comments to giddy young reporters aside, he'd come to Britain for a purpose and he wasn't leaving without getting his message across.

If I am honest, it was a fairly fleeting meeting - lasting probably no more than half an hour although somehow in my memory, it went on for hours.

But it was special, very special. I had met the man who had inspired millions.

"I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination," he said at the conclusion of his 1964 trial for sabotage and treason.

"I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.

"It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve, but if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

The words make me tingle even as I'm writing them again.

There are about a handful of people in history who really set themselves apart, who make the rest of us realise just what human beings are capable of, who are prepared to be brave, who are ready to make sacrifices no matter what, who seem to be a whole lot more wise than the rest of us, who lead with charisma and confidence and who people are prepared to follow.

Nelson Mandela was one of them. He was a man who delivered sentences like: "The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling but in rising every time we fall."

Yes, there were very many heroes of the fight against apartheid and many people made many sacrifices so all South Africans could enjoy freedom.

Yes, Mr Mandela was not a saint by his own admission. Yes, he may have made mistakes. But he was also that very rare human being who could forgive, who had compassion and an astonishing ability to reach out to every creed and colour.

Tens of millions around the world saw a greatness in him that they aspired to in themselves. His flaws made him all the more lovable.

He was the person I imagined Rudyard Kipling had in mind when he was describing what made a man: "If you can walk with kings nor lose the common touch, if you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same."

I've lived in South Africa for two years now, having been brought up in other parts of Africa - Nigeria, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

And I have got to know just how much South Africans love Tata Mandela.

So many in the country feel they know him personally even if they've never met him, never come close to him. He had an amazing skill to reach out and make people believe they belonged, belonged to one big inclusive family.

His going means the world has lost one of the truly inspiring people on this earth.

I'll leave you with another of his stirring thoughts, learned through his long struggle for freedom - no doubt the years leading up to imprisonment as well as the 27 years in prison: "I learned courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.

"The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

What a way to live your life, Nelson Mandela. I feel privileged to have spent half an hour with you.

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