Memories of Mandela

Nelson Mandela, a towering figure who was revered by many, touched an incredible number of lives. (Image: Nelson Mandela Foundation)

• Sello Hatang
Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory
+27 11 547 5600

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Nelson Mandela, a towering figure who was revered by many, touched an incredible number of lives. When he died the world went into mourning and there was a dreaded sense that one of the last men who stood for peace, justice and equality had been returned to the Earth.

Condolences poured in from around the world. Dignitaries and diplomats, prime ministers and presidents, kings and queens, domestic worked and teachers, lawyers and children came together to grieve and pay respects for one of the most loved of all world leaders of the 20th century.

Rick Stengel, former managing editor of Time and collaborator with Mandela on the latter’s 1993 autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, wrote: “[Mandela]… has become a kind of fairy tale: he is the last noble man, a figure of heroic achievement.”

What is most notably remembered by many was his generosity of his time with people. Everyone wanted to meet him, even for just a snatch of conversation or a handshake. Many sought a philosophical conversation or a stirring debate. And he unstintingly gave attention to many, leading to many stories told after his death.

In December 2013, Time Magazine published anecdotes from people who knew him best. Jessie Duarte is today the deputy secretary-general of the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party, but she was Mandela’s personal assistant between 1990 and 1994, before he entered parliament.

“He always made his own bed, no matter where we travelled,” she recalled. “I remember we were in Shanghai, in a very fancy hotel, and the Chinese hospitality requires that the person who cleans your room and provides you with your food, does exactly that. If you do it for yourself, it could even be regarded as an insult. So in Shanghai I tried to say to him, ‘Please don’t make your own bed, because there’s this custom here.’ And he said, ‘Call them, bring them to me.’

“So I did. I asked the hotel manager to bring the ladies who would be cleaning the room, so that he could explain why he himself has to make his own bed, and that they not feel insulted. He didn’t ever want to hurt people’s feelings. He never really cared about what great big people [thought] of him, but he did care about what small people thought of him,” she said.

Watch Jessie Duarte speak about Nelson Mandela

Humanitarian heart

South African photographer Steve Bloom, whose father Harry Bloom was a political activist, remembered: “During the 1950s my parents, who were anti-apartheid activists, knew Nelson Mandela. I remember the story he told them about the occasion he saw a white woman standing next to her broken car in Johannesburg. He approached her and offered to help. After fiddling with the engine he fixed the car. Thankful for his help, she offered to pay him sixpence. ‘Oh no, that’s not necessary,’ he said, ‘I am only too happy to help.’ ‘But why else would you, a black man, have done that if you did not want money?’ she asked quizzically. ‘Because you were stranded at the side of the road,’ he replied.”

Neville Alexander, a political activist who spent 10 years imprisoned on Robben Island alongside Mandela, described his first meeting with the leader: “I was impressed mainly by the warmth and the genuine interest, which was a feature that, subsequently I discovered, is very much part of the man and something which I also must admit now, I learned from him… to give your full attention to your interlocutor, and really take notice of what people are saying, listen to them carefully. In his case, there was a spontaneous, charismatic exuding of warmth. That’s probably the most important, most vivid memory I have of our first meeting.”

In hiding

Wolfie Kodesh, who hid Mandela for nearly eight weeks in 1961 in his flat in a white suburb of Johannesburg, also spoke of his memories: “We had a discussion and an argument about who [was] going to sleep where. I had a tiny flat… and I had a bed and I had a camp stretcher in a cupboard. So when I brought out the camp stretcher, I said to him, ‘Well, I’ll sleep on the camp stretcher. You sleep on the bed because you are six-foot something, I am five-foot something. So the stretcher is just right for me.’ No, he wasn’t going to have that. He hadn’t come there to put me out, and we had a bit of a talk about that and… it was arranged, and I would sleep on the bed.”

Stengel, who spent almost two years with Mandela working on Long Walk to Freedom, said: “In 1994, during the presidential election campaign, Mandela got on a tiny propeller plane to fly down to the killing fields of [KwaZulu-Natal] and give a speech to his Zulu supporters. I agreed to meet him at the airport, where we would continue our work after his speech. When the plane was 20 minutes from landing, one of its engines failed. Some on the plane began to panic.

“The only thing that calmed them was looking at Mandela, who quietly read his newspaper as if he were a commuter on his morning train to the office. The airport prepared for an emergency landing, and the pilot managed to land the plane safely. When Mandela and I got in the backseat of his bulletproof BMW that would take us to the rally, he turned to me and said, ‘Man, I was terrified up there!'”