John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Mandela, a servant of the people

Nelson Mandela's visit to New Zealand, November 1995. At Parliament, meeting with Jim Bolger. 15 November 1995. Photo / NZ Herald
Nelson Mandela's visit to New Zealand, November 1995. At Parliament, meeting with Jim Bolger. 15 November 1995. Photo / NZ Herald

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 drastic 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 only had to have witnessed 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 and sundry 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 of the press conference, however, was of watching Mandela systematically screwing the lids one-by-one back on the tiny and by then 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 long years of less than adequate 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 who 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 Mahlamba Ndlopfu, 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 some months earlier, the parliamentary press gallery wrote to Mandela's office in Pretoria inviting him to speak at a dinner marking the gallery's 125th birthday.

To the gallery's very pleasant surprise, but to the absolute shock and horror of New Zealand officials panicking that there would be some major 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. She did not know what to say. 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. He did not know us from Adam. It was simply that we had made the effort to come and 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

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