Charlene Smith
Charlene Smith

Me and Nelson Mandela

I love to cook and so there came a point during the struggle, where I gave up full-time journalism, became a full-time activist, part of the underground, and after long, endless meetings, would cook for strugglistas.

Murphy Morobe loved my veal Marengo, Cyril Ramaphosa would call at 11pm after going to mines and speaking to workers and I would go into the kitchen and prepare a midnight meal. Neil Coleman loved all my cooking and left hair-dye stains in a basin.

Mohammed Valli Moosa and I would argue at 2am about whether the word “fascist” was necessary in a press release meant for the European Union. I would prepare trays of biscuits and coffee for deep underground United Democratic Front meetings at my home.

The joke, sort-of, was that after the revolution, I would be Mandela’s cook. The day before Madiba came out of prison I took green grapes to Cyril Ramaphosa at the Rand Clinic in Johannesburg; he was recovering from mild pneumonia and reading Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly. Valli had ordered a plane in case Mandela was released the next day. I counselled Cyril to stay in hospital, I was nervous that Mandela wasn’t going to be able to live up to the mythology around him.

Valli, Cyril and Sydney Mufamadi said he was an amazing man, I thought they said that because it was the politically correct thing to do.

The next day Cyril ripped out his drips and caught the charter to Cape Town with Valli and others, Mandela was coming out. In the first pictures on the steps of Cape Town City Hall, you can see Cyril’s Band-Aid from where the drip was.

I wore a yellow blouse and green skirt with small black spots to work. Ken Owen, the editor, looked at me and frowned, I was already considered a lefty journalist, but to wear the colours was going too far. But this was a day, we all knew, unlike any other. A few days before former president FW de Klerk had unbanned the African National Congress and other banned organisations, today Mandela would be free.

At the time he was due to be released, the newsroom went quiet, all activity stopped, we sat transfixed before the television. Mandela was late; a South African Broadcasting Corporation broadcaster filled air, which was dead from a nation holding its breath, with inane commentary.

And then we saw him, walking out, his hand in Winnie’s and even as I write this I could weep, I feel the emotion still. Some of us cheered, something journalists should never do, some of us wept. And suddenly in the streets below was a strange sound, it was like a powerful wind through trees, I looked out of the fourth floor window into the city streets of Johannesburg and people were moving as one, dozens of people, silently, I don’t know where they were going to, but they moved with purpose, strength, they were moving, almost like a tide building.

Mandela was out and the nation had a sudden intake of a sweet new air that we had never yet tasted. It was the taste of freedom.

Mandela stayed at Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s home that night, but the next day he was to fly up to Johannesburg. The United Democratic Movement wanted him to stay somewhere else before he returned to Soweto, so I called a friend who lived on a smallholding in Honeydew. She and her five kids moved out for a night so that Madiba and Winnie could stay.

I had put my name on a list to interview Mandela. His first day home I was called to interview him, driving into Soweto was a remarkable experience, it felt as though every person in Soweto was out walking, moving, toward Mandela’s small home in Orlando West, a home Winnie had already vacated for a bigger, brown home over the hill.

There were more satellite masts and journalists camped outside his home than I have ever seen. I have a photograph of that meeting, shot at a strange angle by a photographer, I seem taller than him, when in fact, Mandela is at least a foot taller than me. We both seem tense. I am sitting on the edge of the couch, he is sitting far back in it, his expression serious, his hands clasped.

I dashed back, wrote the story and breathed. The next day the Nelson Mandela Release Committee called me and said, “Charlene, Mandela is ready to be interviewed by you”.

“Thank you,” I said, “but I have already interviewed him”.

“Charlene,” the comrade said, “he is ready to be interviewed by you”. I panicked and ran around the newsroom garnering new questions to ask. While hundreds waited, I interviewed him four times that week. He liked me, I never knew why, he just did, and for those of us he liked, Debora Patta was another, he always had time.

Many of us were amazed how much Mandela knew about us. We considered ourselves insignificant, Mandela considered no one insignificant. He paid attention. He cared.

That is his legacy: pay attention, pay attention most of all to the invisible people, care. Extend help. Do something. Have integrity.

There are some already criticising the opulence of vehicles drawing up outside his home and hospital, the times he stayed silent, the wealth of his family. Remember this too, Mandela is a man. A very great man, but his weak point was his family, he felt eternally responsible for the suffering of his children and Winnie while he was in prison and he never stopped trying to heal their pain. Some of his grandchildren now, are unworthy of the name Mandela, but that is not his fault. It is always a virtue, in my view, to love your family, how they choose to use that love, is not the fault of the person who expresses the emotion.

In Nelson Mandela, we as a nation felt protected. South Africa, I believe is like an abused child, fearful, angry, always read to lash out, mistrustful, but in Mandela, we found someone who saw our flaws and absolutely loved us and for that he has our eternal devotion. He loved even that which we hated in ourselves.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu is our conscience, Mandela is our heart. The question is: how can a nation, blessed with two such remarkable icons, be as self-destructive as South Africa is today?

Nelson Mandela gave up his life so that we could live, so that we could be free. He never emerged from prison, when he walked out of the gates of Victor Verster, he walked into a new prison; a prison of minders and managers, publicists and bureaucrats, organisational apparatchiks, a demanding family … in the gentle, yet firm, love of Graça Machel he found some time and space to be himself, but it was never, ever going to be enough time, enough space.

Madiba, I believe it will be your old friend Walter Sisulu, who will come for you. The two of you will go and sit on a rocky outcrop on Robben Island, bake some perlemoen on a tin-can seashore braai and talk of the good old, bad old days. Finally, you both will be free.

I wish we had the wisdom to honour your legacy, but I fear, we are just us, flawed, damaged and not quite clever enough to realise that what we will lose is not you, but the doors you opened and that we walked by.

* Charlene Smith is the author of two authorised biographies on Nelson Mandela, Mandela and Mandela and America, which will be released this year. She is also the author of a book on Robben Island. Smith has also helped in the production of three television documentaries on Nelson Mandela, one of which won an award for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

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    • Gail

      What an incredible article. I am sobbing.

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    • Leon

      Nelson Mandela and I? :-)

      Oh my, how blessed you are, Charlene. To have experienced what you have. I met the man once – in London (a state visit – 1995/96?). He was late (went walk-about, I believe, to the horror of his security detail). As a Seffer working for an SA bank in the City, I was invited to attend the reception in his honour at the High Commissioner’s residence. There was no announcement when he arrived. His presence announced itself. When he stepped into that English garden, everybody just knew. An extraordinary experience.

    • Thabo Mogaswa

      Maybe this is impolite to say however this is the first time I read to the end anything you wrote, I always thought you were just angry against men and could never understand you but in this piece you had me in tears, thank you. Can not wait for your two books.

    • Derek Jones

      Thanks for your words Charlene and for being such a wonderful person through your life supporting an honourable struggle. I am humbled by the great act of devotion you have shown. Thankfully even when Madiba goes we will have his paths to follow.
      We need a way to reconcile all this hatred and racism in this our country
      we need a forum .
      A meeting of minds that expose the truths that need to be told
      and the healing that needs to be given.
      People like you help that to happen.God speed to you.

      Thank you.

    • ant day

      You put into words what we feel about the great man. I have difficulty reading or thinking about Mandela without tears welling up,even at work. And the reason must be as you so eloquently put it that he is our heart. He embodies every ideal that South Africans hold dear. If only we could live up to his ideals.

    • MLH

      Yes, this was great.
      I was quite saddened by the hysteria of Mandela’s hospital stay. People seemed like those who gather round at a death: ghoulish.

      Face facts, the man is elderly, he cannot last for ever and he’s had a jolly good innings. We cannot all be invited to his funeral one day. I would prefer to see us all doing our level best to be like him than to behave as tho’ his is the apron string to which we cling. He taught us enough that we should be able to carry it through. Mandela does little to influence our present situation; he’s due some rest, but I like to imagine what he’d say to some of our supposed leaders if he were forced to comment or asked by them for his opinion.
      Mandela must be a master of ‘letting go’.
      I would hate to see all he has stood for die with him.

    • Juergen Rose

      Deeply moving. I pray there will be others who can step into the shoes of men like Mandela and Tutu and be our hearts and consciences.

    • Judith

      Thanks Charlene – you write so lucidly and so compassionately

    • gideon

      a sweeter image, if tata tutu was sharing the beach braai with them, but not too soon…

      thanks charlene

    • Lockstock

      I too remember the day Mandela was released, but I have a considerably more jaundiced view of him (and his speech) that day and the one after. I waited to hear what the man would say to the nation that was on the cusp of spiraling into uncontrollable violence, and then cringed when he called for the ‘armed struggle to continue’. It was there and then that I knew he had neither the finesse nor the courage to embrace peace, never mind lead a country beyond violence. And today’s horrid crime rates are part of that legacy. He eventually reneged on his call for violence, but only when he realised he had pushed the envelope too far, when Chris Hani was murdered.

      But I waited for the newspapers the next day, to see what they would say of Nelson’s speech, and paper after paper, page after page ignored the most important part, which was the part that received the loudest and most cheers from the adoring crowd. I knew then that the media would become complicit in manufacturing the ‘Mandela myth’. And that has most certainly come to pass.

      A few years later and his true colours were briefly displayed when he gave the order at the Shell House massacre, “Shoot! Shoot to kill!’ And over a dozen IFP supporters lay dead for doing nothing more than protesting outside the ANC headquarters. The media predictably shilled for him then, just like they always have since.

      I left in ’96.

    • WSM

      Wonderful words,Charlene. Your analogy of SA as an abused child is spot on: rebellious, destructive and capable of being rescued only by the love and compassion that it rejects so petulantly.

    • thinus oosthuizen

      A worthy tribute to one of the most awesome people ever.
      What an honour to share his stature and legacy as a South African.
      But, yes, are we worthy? Our own legacy will answer that question.
      The ANC have already failed him/us, let the rest of us not share that guilt.

    • SH

      Thanks for this story Charlene.

      On the one hand, media behaviour this week was in some ways intrusive and offensive. Yet it was an indication of how entitled we feel (via the media) to intrude on this man’s life. There must be a better, more respectful way to show our love.

      On the other hand, you righly say ‘we considered ourselves insignificant, Mandela considered no one insignificant’. He sets a visible example that transcendence and humility is possible – even in politics.

      On 16 June 1997 he made a telephone call to our home, in response to a letter from our then 9 yr old son. (My son thought we needed the president’s ‘permission’ to leave the country when I won a scholarship to study abroad. We jokingly encouraged him to write and ask permission).He spoke to all four of us for a while.

      Never, in our wildest imagination did we think that the president of our country would bother to call an insignificant family in response to a 9 year old’s naive ‘Dear Santa’ type letter, but he did. He invited us for tea before we left in Sept. Those around him thought us too insignificant. Tea never happened.

      The world puts him on a pedestal – he refuses to occupy that space. We expect presidents and politicians to behave like little gods – so most of them do.

      The big lesson I learn from Nelson Mandela is to always treat all people with equal regard and respect.

    • Dumisani

      I love this article, it’s so encouraging and well written. This Author is talented and well gifted.

    • Donald Mathray

      Hi Charlene -you lucky devil.I was next to my wife when the great man shook hands.I was over the moon. So I can understand how you feel.

      And thanks for all that you did.

    • Coach

      What an inspiring article!

    • Dave Harris

      Charlene, I enjoyed your reminiscing of the struggle days. However, I have a strange sense of discomfort with your statement:
      “He liked me, I never knew why, he just did, and for those of us he liked, Debora Patta was another”
      I know you mean it in a loving way, but it just comes across as stereotyping that we as a nation need to move away from.
      Maybe I’m being too critical, but I feel that we should be extra careful about not propagating stereotypes about black men.

      Calling SA an abusive child with self-destructive tendencies while lauding praise on Madiba, just doesn’t make sense! Somehow it comes across as a backhanded compliment to Mandela, after all Mandela is still a member of the ANC and strongly supported Zuma’s presidency, didn’t he?

    • Charlene Smith

      Dave Harris – Oh my word Dave, you are so completely coming out of left field.
      Would a woman who starts the article by noting how many, mostly black men, she has cooked for and is clearly friends with – and was active in the struggle against apartheid have issues about race? I think not. But you clearly do, get over it, life is much easier when you stop categorising people and just discover and enjoy people for who they are.
      Secondly, SA is a country. It is not a person. Mandela is a person, not a country, ditto with Zuma, so when I speak about the country, I am not talking about either of those individuals, unless I write, “the influence of Mandela on SA…” as an example, which I clearly was not in this instance. Colonialism, esp British colonialism, was the first thing that started doing in the heads of SA, followed by apartheid, now criminality during democracy… issues are much wider than you seem to be seeing them.
      I thank you for taking the time to comment, but I don’t think you read my piece with much care.

    • Paul S

      Dave Harris…you’re so way off the mark we have to wonder if your brain is even plugged into the rest of you. SA certainly is riven with self-destructive tendecies but this article in no way suggests that Mandiba is connected to that. I doubt that the great man would condone Zuma and the mess he’s making of SA, no matter how strongly he supports the ANC. Maybe go back and read the article fully, instead of just giving it your usual cursory scan in an effort to find something to attack with.

    • Dave Harris

      Charlene, I have read your article carefully, so perhaps I just don’t get it:
      1. Since you grew up in a segregated society and was a direct beneficiary of apartheid, do you still maintain with such certainty that you have no issues with race?
      2. You now say “SA is a country. It is not a person.” yet earlier, you yourself compared SA to an abusive child with self-destructive tendencies. Which of these statements is correct?
      Anyway, I understand that did not mean to diss either Mandela or President Zuma but don’t you think that your characterization of SA as an “abused child with self destructive” tendencies unusually harsh given our festering racism and socio-economic disparity along racial lines? Did you expect the effects of centuries of oppression to suddenly disappear after our recent liberation?

    • Tony

      Charlene, interesting post that clearly emanates from the soul. I wish to enquire though why so many of the Mandela books and so much of the commercially beneficial aspect of the Mandela legacy is benefiting mostly whites? I know that most blacks adore Mandela, but from my experience, most love him for his role in emancipating us and not nearly as much for changing the material condition of our people. In this latter regard most blacks I interact with thank the ANC under leadership of Thabo Mbeki. The cogency of their opinion is substantiated by the clear material benefit they received from the ANC under Mbeki, as substantiated recently by reports of a critic of ANC policy (the SAIRR). Nonetheless, not a single book from the likes of Jonathan Ball publishers and similar mainstream publishing houses comments on the positive legacy of the ANC or Thabo Mbeki (accept as a side comment). The only biographies that are supportive of any functionaries of the ANC and, indirectly, the ANC are those written about Trevor Manual, Cyril Ramaphosa, etc. Interestingly, there seems to be amnesia about policy failures that should properly be attributed to Mandela (e.g failure to rein in corruption at the earliest stage of the post-liberation state, failure to ensure that whites understood that economic transformation was a corollary of reconciliation, failure to address openly the racial paradoxes our society, the arms deal, etc) whilst this amnesia does not apply to Mbeki or the ANC. Is it not the

    • Charlene Smith

      Dave Harris – It sounds as though you are struggling personally with racist tendencies. It is good that you are trying to rid yourself of them, but please do not project them on to everyone. Yes there are racists, sexists and all sorts of bigots in every society. They are as tedious as those, new to political awareness who see conspiracies and challenges under every stone.
      People tend to be quite simple creatures, most just want to get on with their lives.
      You must also be very young, or very badly out of most loops in SA society to assume that all are racist.
      My advice, get out there, meet some great and interesting people of all races who don’t have your hangups. Chill. Life can be wonderful if you allow it, it is filled with all sorts of amazing people, but you will never meet them if you have not dealt with your personal issues.

    • Dave Harris

      Actually Charlene, what I am struggling with is why a certain section of our society (they know who they are) together with their cohorts in the media are bent on painting our government as utterly corrupt and degenerate.

      You still haven’t explained your extremely harsh depiction of SA as an “abused child with self-destructive tendencies” or why you can claim with such unflinching certainty, that you have no racist tendencies.

    • Ant

      @Dave – “racist tendencies” are you having a laugh? Charlene is personifying the nature of South African society , based on the fact that it has undeniably been abused ( presumably by apartheid ) and the consequence of that abuse has been that crime and other violence is rampant, based on numbers alone and is therefore self destructive. In no way is that based on race, yet you ascribe it to her race – you see she is white and you automatically label her as a racist, I say that marks you as a racist.

    • neil coleman

      I’ve just seen your blog.
      For the historical record, I think its important to explain why I ‘left hairdye stains in your basin’!

    • Charlene Smith

      Neil Coleman – Hello Neil! You could have done that, but for those discussing Mr Coleman’s hair, it has been his own colour for years. Indeed, it is a notoriously difficult colour to dye – a natural red head – as we discovered when he was on the run from the security branch and lived at my home for a time. The hair dye was our, not very succesful attempt to dye his hair to help him evade the enthusiastic attentions of the security branch.
      We are both better suited to our day jobs than our failed foray into hairdressing.

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    • Thapelo Liphoko

      I appreciate Ma Smith on such a revelational and reminding article on the significance of Dr Rolihlahla Mandela. I think Zuma could learn what it is to give a lecture on who Nelson Mandela is and the legacy he built and the losses he suffered and the committmsnt he showed to us as a nation. Thank you.

    • Lorraine

      Sobbing as I sit here reading your words. I will never be able to even come close to the man he is. But in honour of him, his legacy and what he did, I will continue trying.

    • Call for Honesty

      I often wonder what would have happened if Nelson Mandela followed the example of Albert Luthuli. I wonder what would have happened if he fully supported Luthuli on opposing the use of violence to achieve a political end – supporting his belief that the end does not justify the means.

      Perhaps he would not have been imprisoned on Robben Island?
      Perhaps he would have been around for his family?
      Perhaps he would have been able to build up his legal practice and make a major contribution to South African society during the wasted 27 years?
      Perhaps the National Party leadership would have been far more inclined to listen to his concerns much earlier?
      Perhaps the changes to how SA was governed would have come more than a decade earlier and many senseless killings have been prevented?

      Sadly this did not happen and was not given sufficient time to happen.

      What happened in SA needs to be viewed against the backdrop of the history of democracy. It was only 120 years ago that the right of all citizens to vote was first introduced in New Zealand. Before this the vote was qualified.Only certain men were allowed to vote. It was only after World War I that more countries allowed all citizens to vote. Despite this in a number of European countries women were only given the vote after World War II with Switzerland giving this right in 1971. Sadly this is all ignored in the media and in the political distortion of history. Sadly, I believe, Mandela was in too much of a hurry.

    • Tools_ink2

      Great write-up!Thanks.. ,many thanks.

    • Colin Smuts

      Interesting Charlene. Are you still in the US?