John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Sheer humility from Africa's political rock star

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Nelson Mandela. Photo / AP
Nelson Mandela. Photo / AP

A crisp, stark spring day had not long dawned as the long-suffering gearbox of our rust-encrusted excuse for a taxi graunched its way through the otherwise silent streets of Harare.

Zimbabwe's capital was ablaze with the purple-blue hue of the city's blossoming jacaranda trees as the New Zealand media contingent crawled in convoy towards Jim Bolger's downtown hotel, allegedly one of the city's better ones but one with a shortage of functioning lifts.

In something of a coup, New Zealand's prime minister had secured a one-on-one working breakfast with the hottest property at the 1991 Commonwealth summit.

Anyone doubting that billing had only to witness the outrageous big-noting of Bob Hawke the night before at a cocktail party hosted by the softly-spoken Nigerian Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Chief Emoka Anyaoku.

On sighting Nelson Mandela on the far side of the room, Australia's prime minister promptly turned his back on those conversing with him and made an undignified beeline for Africa's greatest statesman, barging all out of his way and hugging Mandela as if he was a long-lost friend he had just come across in a Sydney RSL club.

Bolger did not need to indulge in such star-struck antics as he hosted Mandela in his hotel suite. But no doubt Bolger likewise was wishing some of Mandela's magic would rub off on him.

Talking to the press, Mandela, who had been freed from jail some 20 months earlier, was ever the diplomat. Much to Bolger's relief, he refrained from mentioning the New Zealand National Party's long record of complicity with South Africa's apartheid-based white regime. He instead cited the pending integration of black and white rugby in the republic as potentially helping his country's peace process.

My abiding memory, however, was of watching Mandela systematically screwing the lids back on the mostly empty jars of marmalade and jam littering the breakfast table.

Why was he doing this? Was he bored? Was it the result of a waste-not, want-not attitude to food after 27 years of prison rations? Did it reflect a desire for order in a hectic working life which for him had only just begun at an age when most people had long been retired?

Whatever, it did not seem to be something that someone of his stature should be bothering about when he had so much to do for his country, but had been cruelly robbed of the time needed to do it.

Mandela was by then 73. He exuded the calm and graciousness of someone who had moved to a level way above petty party politics. He knew the only question was when he would become South Africa's President - not if. He had accepted the impossible expectations already heaped upon him before he got through the door of the president's official residence. He bore no grudges against those who had fought tooth-and-nail to preserve apartheid. He, more than anyone, knew life was too short to be consumed with hatred.

Four years later New Zealand was hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. By then Mandela was President. Following the summit, he stayed on for a three-day official state visit. Mandela got rock-star treatment and matching crowds during his visit. But it is the small things that stick in the mind.

Having got wind of the state visit months earlier, the parliamentary press gallery wrote to Mandela's office inviting him to speak at a dinner marking the gallery's 125th birthday.

To the gallery's pleasant surprise, but to the absolute horror of New Zealand officials panicking that there would be some lapse in protocol as a result of mixing journalists with alcohol, Mandela agreed.

Along with their wives and partners, those on the organising committee for the black-tie affair at the Wellington Town Hall had the privilege of welcoming the President and his entourage.

As Mandela moved down the line, he shook hands with my partner, declaring "I am honoured to meet you". She was gobsmacked. As far as she was concerned, she was the one who should feel honoured.

Mandela's ability to reach out and touch people with his sheer humility was also apparent the day after the press gallery dinner when he arrived at Parliament for official talks.

He was accorded the standard military guard of honour on the parliamentary forecourt. A couple of us not covering these formalities left our office and went outside to watch. Mandela finished reviewing the troops and was then led by Bolger towards the entrance of the Beehive. Suddenly Mandela broke away and walked over to where we were standing. He had no idea we were reporters. It was simply that we had made the effort to come to see him. He felt bound to reciprocate.

There were more handshakes. A few words were exchanged. He said his goodbyes and walked into the Beehive, leaving us walking on air. No other world leader would have made such a gesture. But that was Mandela.

He accepted that fate had decreed he be the servant of the people no matter where, no matter when; and now in death as well as life. He was loved because he never compromised on that.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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