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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