How Mandela nearly ruined my photo

17 December 2013

Former South African president Nelson Mandela may have saved a nation, but he nearly ruined my most treasured photograph, writes Paddy Upton, performance director of the national cricket team and head coach of the Rajasthan Royals

When an athlete goes on to the field, in front of a camera or to a public function, they generally put their best foot forward. So do we when we meet our new boss, start a new relationship or meet our significant other’s parents for the first time.

It’s easy to put a best foot forward and look good. This does not impress me much. What interests me is who we are when we’re not playing the part that is written on our CV. Who are we being in our private moments when away from scrutinising eyes – when our true character gets to shine through?

There are few more telling moments than how we treat the “little” people when no one is watching; people like the restaurant or hotel breakfast waiter, the team bus driver, the not-so-good-looking supermarket teller or the 51st autograph hunter of the day. What would the tea lady, receptionist and janitor at your office say about you?

A dream come true

During an Indian Premier League tournament I watched Rajasthan Royals’ players Shane Watson and Rahul Dravid thank the bus driver for each journey between the hotel and practice ground. Coach Eric Simons takes it to another level, always asking the bus driver’s name and then daily greeting and thanking him by name. Other players, after a six-week cricket tour, wouldn’t even know what the driver looked like.

I watched Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar helping a nervous mother take a photo of himself and her son, knowingly making himself late for the bus but also making the child’s day and possibly a dream come true. This happened in New Zealand and when no one was watching, other than me waiting for him in the lift.

This was Sachin when not acting out his CV, but being himself.

There are other cricketers I have had the privilege to work with who have shown this soundness of character in private moments – they know who they are and I don’t need to mention them here.

Indescribable presence

And then the day came. I had the opportunity to meet Nelson Mandela in one of these private moments, out of the public eye … and he nearly ruined a treasured photograph of mine!

This story begins a little earlier, in 1996 when I first got to meet Madiba as a member of the South African Cricket team management. I had planned to ask him two questions … and then, as he moved into my space, I became enveloped by an indescribable presence and a powerful stillness overcame me.

Video footage showed that we spoke for a brief few moments – but to this day I still have no recollection of the experience. I have no idea what he said to me or what I said to him. I don’t think I asked my planned questions.

The team then posed for a photo with Madiba, with him still in the outfit he had been wearing when he attended the Cape Carnival earlier in the day. This was the treasured photo, the one that Madiba himself was to nearly ruin.


A year later we got to meet him again at Newlands Cricket Ground [in Cape Town] before playing an international match. This time I had another question, one that I would not forget to ask. I wanted him to please sign the treasured photo from our last meeting. Due to a tight schedule he told his security officer, Rory Steyn, to have me meet him at his presidential car on his way out of the stadium. I waited; equipped with excitement, my photo and a pen.

Due to the crowds, he was ushered hastily past me and into his car. They were about to pull off when he saw me and beckoned the driver to stop. He opened the car door and invited me to sit next to him. As he began to sign, the inkless nib only managed to scratch the photograph. It was one of those pens that you need to put pressure on the nib so that it retracts into the pen and releases ink from the cartridge. I mentioned he should put pressure on the nib, which when he did, resulted in the whole cartridge of gold ink splattering all over the photo.

Damn! I should have tested the pen. Damn, my photo was ruined!

Without a moment’s thought, the president of our country immediately wiped the photo clean with his trademark Madiba shirt sleeve. He wiped before any ink could dry, cleaning the photo and ruining his shirt with a permanent gold stain.

I thought, “Oh no, his shirt is ruined.” He said, “Thank goodness, your photo is not ruined!”

He asked for another pen, signed it, and apologised for nearly ruining my photo.

It was just us in his car, the president of a country and a lowly fitness trainer – in private and no cameras. In those few moments I witnessed why Nelson Mandela will be remembered in a thousand year’s time as one of the greatest men to have walked the planet.

To honour you, Tata Madiba, would be to live the lesson you taught me that day.

I accept that I’ll never be as great as you, but I’m embarrassed to acknowledge a deep fear that I’ll not be as humble as you.

I promise to try.

This is an edited version of a post first published on Republished here with kind permission.