Sheila Camerer
Sheila Camerer

Sheila Camerer: My fond memories of Madiba

This sad day brought to mind several personal encounters I had with the Great Man in the 1990s that demonstrate his very special humanity and human kindness:

I remember when I was sworn in as a deputy minister in his government at an early evening ceremony followed by a cocktail reception at Tuynhuis. My late mother, who was born in 1921 attended. As we moved through to the cocktails in the next room after the ceremony, she got left behind. I went back to fetch her and saw the Madiba bending over her offering his arm and she smiling up at him as they walked slowly through to the reception. She had probably called him a terrorist in the 1960s!

I remember when he rang me at my constituency office. I was no longer in his government but I had been asked by the then leader of the New National Party, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, who was overseas to stand in for him at a confidential briefing on an alleged coup plot. When we emerged from the briefing at the Union Buildings of course the media were all over us and the trick was to say something without giving the game away which I thought I had managed. Not the Democratic Party, who attacked me next day in the newspapers. Later that morning I received the call from a lady who said the president would like to speak to me. At that time there was a comedian who used to give very good impersonation of Madiba on the radio. I thought it might be a hoax. Then he came on the line. “Hullo Sheila, this is Nelson Mandela speaking.” “Is this the real President Mandela?” I asked tentatively. He guffawed in response. “Yes, yes it’s me”. He had only wanted to reassure me that he was quite satisfied with what I had told reporters about the briefing. I could not get over his kindness. After all there was no need for him to bother about me.

I remember he had a little joke with me. During the negotiations around the final constitution there was a meeting at his official residence over which he presided to iron out final sticking points. We were offered breakfast on the lawn. As I was bending over to help myself to orange juice there was this unmistakable voice behind me. “Sheila, why are you ignoring me?” I immediately stood up and assured the president that I would certainly never ignore him. Thereafter whenever he had occasion to introduce me to a visitor or a foreign dignitary, which happened a couple of times he would say with a smile: “This is Sheila Camerer, she always ignores me”, and I would have to give my usual assurances.

I remember when I attended a Nedlac/Cosatu conference where my daughter was also a delegate. We sat together and my daughter was rather iffy about seeing her mother was still an NNP member in those days. Madiba opened the conference. When he left the stage and made his way down the aisle of course as was his wont he greeted lots of people. Suddenly he spotted me and made his way over. He shook my hand and I took the opportunity to introduce my daughter. As if he had a sixth sense for the situation he said in a loud voice, shaking her hand up and down, “you have a very well-known mother”. After the Madiba endorsement the atmosphere certainly improved.

Memories of the greatest South African of our era are what we have left to sustain us.

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