I met Mr. Mandela on three occasions. My first meeting was fleeting, I was pasted to the crushed crowd of thousands to touch the hem of his garment at the Parliament of World Religions hosted by Cape Town in 1999. He and the Dalai Lama had just spoken to the adoring crowds and were leaving the auditorium close to where I happened to be standing. I felt him smile at me as if I was the only person in the hall.
My second meeting had a humorous twist. I have these past days, been reading many articles about his wicked sense of humor and his love of astounding his security guards and am pleased to say, I experienced this side of his greatness, on two lucky occasions.
In 2000 I was collaborating on a book on the San Bushmen for a German publisher. My collaborator Glynis and I were on a trip to the Kalahari Desert on one of our research forays. We had been driving from Cape Town to the Northern Cape for many dusty hours, and being a Sunday, we found nothing open. By 2pm we were so hungry we were ready to eat the dashboard of my steamy Toyota. Lo and behold we discovered an open restaurant in the town of Upington, the last major town before we hit the deep Kalahari.
“Yes they were open but no we could not eat there” was their reply to our gob-smacked faces.
“You’ll have death on your hands! I insisted.
The reason they explained, that we could not eat in the restaurant, was that Mr. Mandela was due for lunch with his entourage. There was, plain and simply: no room at the inn.
I managed to persuade the restaurant owner to set up a plastic table for us on the dusty pavement under the shade of the only cloud in the hot blue sky.
Glynis and I sat down and ordered “Just exactly what the president is having please” and were just digging into the filet of ostrich, to the amusement of the occasional vagrant, when the black Mercedes cars began to roll in like thunder.
“Just eat!” I whispered to Glynis, “I guarantee you, no-one will even notice us.”
The largest car of the entourage stopped and out-stepped Mr. Mandela, who strode right over to us.
“And what might I ask are you to lovely women doing, sitting on a pavement, eating?” he asked.
“It’s because of you!” I answered, laughing.
With that, his security guards blanched as he called for a chair and sat down at the pavement table to join us for lunch while the rest of his team ate in the air conditioned conditions of the smart indoor restaurant. He was fascinated to hear about our San Bushman project and I don’t think I have ever eaten a more delicious meal. It could have been cardboard and we would have relished every mouthful.
My third encounter was at the airport in Johannesburg, flying to Cape Town from a conference on Indigenous People of Africa in Geneva at the UN. We flew into Johannesburg and then were bussed to another plane for the domestic flight to Cape Town. The plane was surrounded by police vehicles and tanks. No one had any idea what was happening, but we boarded the steps to the plane, carrying our hand luggage. At the top of the flight of steps, stood our president, greeting each “ordinary citizen” as we boarded the plane.
His simple act of reaching out in such an unexpected way, when he could so easily have been shuttled into his seat quietly away from the crowds. After takeoff the captain announced a welcome to the precious cargo on board and everyone broke into Nkosi Sikalele. What a trip.