"Ah, when we meet the woman, we understand the man," beamed Nelson Mandela as he emerged from his car outside the Wellington Town Hall to greet my wife, Ruth, and I as we waited to host him at the Parliamentary Press Gallery 125th dinner.

Nelson Mandela presents the William Webb Ellis Trophy to South African captain Francois Pienaar after the 1995 final. Courtesy: YouTube/jaiarc

This was Mandela - the man for whose freedom you wore a helmet to the Eden Park game in 1981 to protest, the man who broke apartheid and then helped to heal South Africa - here in person, shaking my hand.

It was November 1995. Mandela was on his first and only visit to New Zealand, where South Africa was being welcomed back to the annual Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM).

A week earlier, meeting the Queen, I had blundered into an excruciating conversational cul de sac. I was determined not to screw up this time, as chairman of the Press Gallery with a guest who deserved to be described as iconic.


My conversation with Mandela at the dinner was unremarkable, although we traversed rugby and apartheid and the greater popularity of soccer among South Africans.

I gingerly raised the execution of Niger oil delta activist Ken Saro Wiwa and eight others by the Nigerian dictatorship, which occurred while the CHOGM meeting was being held.

Not only was that a huge slap in the face for the Commonwealth, but also for Mandela, seeking to project new African influence at his first such summit.

The first time I'd seen Mandela in the flesh was the day of his inauguration as president in May, a year earlier. A party of Kiwi journalists, led by Prime Minister Jim Bolger's South African press secretary Therese Anders, somehow infiltrated the state leaders' breakfast.

Read more:
Wynne Gray: Mandela's golden Cup moment
Tributes to Nelson Mandela
South Africans celebrate an amazing life
Nelson Mandela in the Herald

As we entered, Benazir Bhutto was just leaving. Inside, Yasser Arafat was jovial, while Bob Hawke skulked on the sidelines, and Mandela was there.

In a brief audience with the New Zealand delegation the next morning, Mandela was endlessly warm and generous, as he seemed to be with everyone he met.

Had he spent so long in prison that he thrived on all the company?

Certainly, as he sat next to me at dinner, I couldn't help but notice his enormous, gnarled hands.

In those hands were the years he spent working the prison quarry at Robben Island, expressed as deeply as the redemptive spirit he brought to his nation and to the world.