I met with Nelson Mandela many times after his release from prison, both as a journalist and a friend, but two occasions stand out as illustrative of what I regard as his most profound human quality: his keen interest in the ordinary lives of ordinary people. It stemmed, I think, from a sense of guilt that he often spoke about at having placed the interests of his great political cause ahead of those of his family, from whom he was cruelly cut off for those 27 years and who became a largely dysfunctional unit as a result. He seemed to be trying to make up for that by embracing everyone he encountered as members of his larger human family.
My first experience of this was on his first day back home in Soweto, the huge segregated black township outside Johannesburg, to which the apartheid regime authorities had flown him after his tumultuous release in Cape Town the day before. The whole township was in a frenzy of excitement with boisterous crowds singing and dancing and ululating everywhere. I found myself in the midst of a great throng outside the Mandelas’ tiny matchbox house on Vilakazi Street. Zwelakhe Sisulu, the son of Mandela’s soul-mate and fellow prisoner, Walter Sisulu, was performing the tough job of trying to prevent the crowd from overwhelming the fence surrounding the house. Zwelakhe, NF ’85, a journalistic colleague and friend, spotted me in the crowd and gestured to me to go around to the back of the house. There the crowd was thinner and, with the enthusiastic help of some of them, I was lifted over the fence and Zwelakhe took me into the house.
There, in the tiny sitting room, I met the Great Man for the first time. He greeted me with his famous smile and gestured to me to sit beside him in a cramped little settee, where he began telling me how much my reporting and columns had meant to him and his fellow prisoners during their long incarceration. "You and your newspaper [the Rand Daily Mail] kept our spirits up," he said. But no sooner had our conversation begun—which I later realised was probably the first one-one-one interview he had given since his release—than a small boy stuck his head through the doorway to tell Mandela some people had arrived to see him.
"Please excuse me," Mandela said as he rose from the seat, "but this is very important."
Three elderly men entered the room, bowing and shaking his hand solemnly, after which a fascinating conversation ensued in their isiXhosa language, which fortunately I was able to follow. It turned out they were elders from his home village of Qunu in the Transkei rural area where he had spent his youth and where he has now been buried. The conversation was about the minutiae of village life. Who had married whom, and what name had so-and-so given her new baby.
So it went on for about half an hour, by which time the lives and doings of just about everyone in that tiny community had been closely analyzed, the state of the rains and crops debated, and fraternal greetings exchanged. Only when the three left with more murmured salutations did Mandela return to the little settee to talk to the journalist about high matters of state. But even then he was charmed to know I could speak his home language, so that the conversation had to turn to the details of my own personal background before turning to those other secondary matters.
The other occasion, some five years later, was when my wife, Sue, was in the final stages of terminal cancer. Mandela was president by then and he had asked me how Sue was doing. When I told him she was nearing the end, his response was simple: "Then I must come and see her soon."
A few weeks later my home phone rang and our youngest son, Julian, answered. "Is that Julian?" he asked, revealing his extraordinary ability to remember individual’s names. "It’s Nelson Mandela here. Tell your mother I’m on my way to see her." Mandela often made his own phone calls to members of the public without going through secretarial staff.
Mandela was actually on his way to the airport to catch a flight for a state visit to Saudi Arabia, but he made a detour to call at our suburban home. He arrived in an ordinary unmarked car with a driver, followed by a single carload of police bodyguards whom he promptly despatched to wait in the street outside our property. Not for Mandela the high-speed convoy of escorting police cars with flashing blue lights, outriders and wailing sirens so beloved by his successors. Simplicity was Mandela’s style, preferring to be low-key and informal whenever possible. On his first visit to New York he alarmed his U.S. security staff by leaving his hotel room alone early one morning to go jogging down Fifth Avenue.
At our home Mandela went first to greet our black housekeeper, then the gardener, inquiring about both their lives, where they were from, how many children they had, before sitting down with us to have breakfast on our veranda. He spent more than an hour there in happy, cheerful conversation with Sue, Julian and myself before continuing on his official presidential mission. It was one of the most precious moments of Sue’s life, lighting up her last two weeks before she died. It was an extraordinary gesture of simplicity and human graciousness that my family and I will cherish always. That was the quintessence of his greatness.

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