Condolences from all over the world are pouring in. So are all the tributes of people who have met this wonderful statesman. They tell us stories of how he talked to strangers in elevators and how he always stopped to chat with preschoolers. So I thought the least that I could do to honour his legacy, is to share my story of the day I met Madiba…
It was 1998. I was a first year student at the University of Pretoria and resided in the SONOP men’s hostel. During the course of the year, we raised money for a project to curb farm attacks in South Africa. The project had reached its pinnacle to the end of the year, and the idea was to celebrate it with a prestigious gala evening at the Pretoria city hall. All the who’s who would be there. The organizers had also invited the president, so there was a slight chance that he might be attending. But I thought that was wishfull thinking. He has so many other pressing issues. Why would he take the time and attend this student function?
But late that afternoon, when we were all scrambling to finalize the last arrangements for the evening, word came in from the president’s office that he would attend the dinner party! I simply could not believe my ears! I couldn’t believe how lucky I am to have the opportunity of seeing Madiba with my own eyes.
Some of the organizers of the event, came by our hostel to quickly put together a guard of honor that had to greet the president as soon as he arrived at the city hall. The senior students charged us as the freshmen, to do the job. By this time my excitement had no limits. I wouldn’t have to look at the president from afar. Nope, he would be walking right pass me!
But not everyone was equally eager. See, not all of us were politically likeminded people. The freshmen group was very diverse. Some of the guys were for instance politically “neutral”. They didn’t have very strong feelings either “for” of “against” the New South Africa. Others came from very conservative backgrounds and had not yet made peace with the fact that Nelson Mandela – once a convicted saboteur – was now the newly elected president of South Africa. Keep in mind that our democracy was at that stage a mere 4 years old.
Also keep in mind that the senior students did not ask for volunteers. They simply commanded the freshmen to stand a guard of honor. We didn’t have a choice in the matter. It didn’t bother me, because I was thrilled to have the opportunity of seeing the president. After all, I come from a household where my parents are politically very liberal, and it sounded like a thing that would do my dad proud. But some of the other guys were very negative. They had to pay respect for someone they didn’t respect. Reluctantly they obeyed the orders and went along to form part of the guard of honor.
When the president’s car pulled in, to long lines of young men were standing on attention beside a red carpet. Up untill that moment, everything was as expected. It was glamorous and extravagant. I think I expected the president to fall into this category as well.
But out of the car climbed a senior citizen. He was old. But not fragile. He was radiant, but humble. He was friendly, but sincere. In that moment I realized that I was looking at the personification of “charisma”.
He waved at the crowd and started walking down the red carpet – surrounded by young white men that formed the guard of honor.
And then he did the unexpected. Right in the middle of the guard of honor, he stopped. He simply stopped and randomly starting shaking the young men’s hands – thanking them for their trouble to stand guard…
Everyone was flabbergasted. I mean, when you walk down a red carpet through a guard of honor, the spotlight is on yóú. You are under no obligation to see anyone else. For that brief moment you can just enjoy the attention that is coming your way. But not President Nelson Mandela. Not Madiba…
As if that was not enough, he dialogued with the young men in Afrikaans. Asking them what they are studying and how they are doing. Yes, in Afrikaans of all languages.
I stood on attention the whole time, but I prayed like heck. “Lord, please let him stop at me too so that I can shake his hand. PLEASE!” He walked up to me. And for a moment I thought he was going to stop, but alas, he stopped at the guy right next to me. I kept standing on attention, and although I was a bit dissapointed not being able to shake the president’s hand, I was very thrilled to see him so up close and personal.
But then something totally unforeseen happened. The guy who stood next to me, was probably the freshman who was the most vocal far-rightwinger in the group. And against all odds, the president unknowingly chose to stop at him!. Madiba held out his hand to greet the young white male, but to no avail.
The student didn’t respond. He refused to shake the president’s hand. The student withheld his hand and just glared at the president with eyes beaming with hatred and despise. Trust me, I was next to him.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a situation like that. You hold out your hand to greet someone, but they refuse to shake it. It has happened to me once before. I felt like a complete idiot. And that was in the privacy of a living room. How President Nelson Mandela must have felt at that moment – infront of the media and the eyes of the world – I’m not sure. But it must have been quite embarrassing.
I was dumbstruck. I could not believe that someone can have the audacity to disrespect another human being like that – regardless of how much the other person’s political affiliation may differ from yours.
For a couple of seconds (that felt like an eternity) Madiba just stood there with his hand outstretched. And then he turned to me. Yes, to ME! Needless to say I didn’t wait a second longer. I grabbed that man’s hand and shook it for the both of us. I shook it on behalf of all the whitey’s. I shook it on behalf of all of South Africa! This was a gesture of reconciliation. Who in their right mind, would not want to take the hand of reconciliation?
That incident is the perfect character sketch of who president Nelson Mandela was. He was the man of reconcilliation. No, he was not an angel. And no, he was not without his faults. But he was the man who despite everything, held out his hand to the white community.
I learned a lot from that incident. One could say that the guard of honor, resembled an accurate cross section of the white community. Sadly, there are whites who refuse to take hands. Though they are in the minority, they have a tremendous negative impact on our society. They do nothing to brake the stigma that white people are racists. They do nothing to take our country forward. They live in the past.
Others are neutral when it comes to reconciliation. We will take the hand if the opportunity presents itself. But we wil just as easily back away if it asks too much of us. The essence is that we are committed to reconciliation as long as we can benefit from it. It suits us well now that our sport teams can compete internationally again. We’ll be happy to take in a partner of colour, if it means that we can land a government contract for our business. But I am not so sure if all the “neutrals” will stay on board. Because true transformation is costly.
And then there are others who are eager to make reconciliation work in South Africa. We still believe in the potential of a rainbow nation. And we are willing to take a chance at it, even if it means that we will be ridiculed by friends and fellow whitey’s. I definitely consider myself part of this group.