The Mandelas I knew

Dec 10 2013, 20:29 IST
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SummaryRemembering the friend, editor and matchmaker.

Remembering the friend, editor and matchmaker

My most abiding memory of Nelson Mandela is of a visit he made to the Sisulu home after his farewell banquet as president of South Africa in 1999. We received an early morning call from my mother-in-law, Albertina Sisulu, to be at the house before nine because Madiba would be visiting Walter (my father-in-law). Given that we had attended the farewell banquet, arriving home after midnight, we thought it quite unreasonable for Madiba to drag us out of our beds at that early hour. “Doesn’t he ever get tired?” asked my husband, Max.

Far from being tired, Mandela arrived promptly, looking fresh and relaxed, accompanied by his gracious and lovely wife, Graca Machel. It was a perfect Highveld morning, and they chose to sit on the veranda to enjoy the mild sunshine. Since I was the first family member to arrive, I served the tea and listened to Walter praise his friend for the success of his presidency.

I sent up a silent prayer of appreciation for the privilege of witnessing this extraordinary moment — Nelson Mandela, global icon and colossus of 20th century history, who had inspired millions around the world, basking in the praise of his life-long mentor. I had never seen Mandela look so happy and laid back, and I marvelled at a phenomenon so rare in Africa: a leader willingly giving up power after just one term, his popularity undiminished.

Walter echoed my thoughts when he said: “It has been wonderful, Diba, just wonderful, and leaving at this time. It is absolutely the correct thing to do.” I was amused by Graca’s response: “I just wish some of your counterparts could follow his example.”

It was one of the greatest blessings of my life to write the biography of Walter and Albertina Sisulu. In the process of my research, I interviewed some of South Africa’s greatest leaders and had the opportunity to personally interact with Mandela. In one of our interviews, we discussed his decision to enter into talks with the Apartheid government. I asked if he was not concerned that his constituency would consider him a sellout, given the resistance to any engagement with the enemy. He said that he was not concerned, because even if people were uneasy about the process, they would continue to trust him due to his track record and reputation.

Mandela was keen for Walter’s

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