Two elderly South Africans have found a way to remember the late Nelson Mandela, and they continue his legacy in their different ways.
The stamp of history
Octogenarian Val Irons met many struggle stalwarts as a Methodist minister’s wife, so for posterity she has compiled a Mandela-focused book of stamps
She never met the late Nelson Mandela, but for 82-year-old Edenvale pensioner Val Irons he represented many struggle stalwarts who she did meet as wife of a Methodist minister. So she used her hobby, stamp collecting, to preserve his – and their – legacy for herself, her family and close friends.
Irons has compiled a written account of Mandela’s life, illustrated with a beautiful collection of postage stamps that depict this story, stretching from his early days in Mveso in the Transkei to the days after his death, lying in state at the Union Buildings. Looking at these little works of art that Irons ordered over the years from the SA Post Office, it strikes me as a pity that they went mostly unnoticed by the general public, but at least philatelists like Irons have preserved them for posterity.
She has stamps that depict Mandela as a Transkei herd boy, and stamps featuring Steve Biko, Albert Luthuli, John Dube, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Chris Hani, Robert Sobukwe and Hector Pieterson (the iconic photo of him carrying a dead girl).
There are stamps printed in Kenya, Somalia, Mauritius, Mozambique and Malawi. Even Russia printed evocative stamps celebrating Mandela and the country’s political freedom. In some, photos of Mandela as a young lawyer are used, as he was in prison and couldn’t be pictured at the time.
“I see stamps as portrayers of history, and their scarcity in my view denies the majority of people the richness of appreciation as well as the information that they bring. Particularly lovely were the miniature sheets of stamps issued in 1998 to commemorate the 90th birthday of Mandela,” she says.
Irons began collecting stamps “sporadically” as a child, but around 1990 she started taking more of an interest in them and focused on Mandela as a theme.
“Being a South African living through that time, I became politically aware and I felt we owed something to Mandela and the many people he represented. This was my way of doing that,” she says.
All she has of Mandela personally is his signature on his photograph. “In 1994 I wrote to his office asking that he sign a photo. He did,” she smiles.
When Mandela died, Irons visited his home and his Centre of Memory in Houghton.
“I spent a lovely evening looking at the exhibition at the Centre of Memory. George Bizos and Archbishop Tutu were there, and Johnny Clegg did the entertaining. There was something so heroic about that era and so many people made sacrifices. There was a lot to be done, and it was costly.”
Irons says that Mandela’s passing serves to remind her of the values he stood for, “values that we’ve strayed from”.
She will be continually reminded of the late icon, and the other stalwarts of his time, as her Mandela-focused stamp collection is by no means complete.
“Related stamps will continue to be printed. For instance, I recently ordered a booklet of stamps commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Rivonia Trial (1963-1964, when Mandela, along with seven others, including Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, were sentenced to life imprisonment for treason). And last year was the 100th anniversary of the Union Buildings in Pretoria, and the Post Office printed stamps themed on Mandela lying in state there. So I will carry on bulking out my collection,” says Irons.
Irons lives on a small pension in a retirement village in Edenvale, but the cost of limited edition stamps sent in the post – she paid R33 for the Rivonia Trial booklet of stamps – is worth it to her.
“Mine is an uncommon medium of storytelling, and it’s my way of appreciating and remembering the sacrifices that were made during that time,” she says.
And in continuing Mandela’s legacy, Irons, even at her age, is tireless in supporting her community. She is part of the care team at Edenvale’s Methodist church, which runs soup kitchens and hospice support for the poor.
She is also a leader in an Edenvale support group of Faith and Light, an international Christian organisation that assists those with disabilities.
“There is so much need out there. I’m blessed with health, and I can get around, so this is my way of giving back,” she says.
The finest oke in a carpenter’s life
Colin Fitzgerald, a carpenter from Jersey, never knew his father. At 51, he met the man who filled that void, Nelson Mandela.
Colin Fitzgerald is quietly doing his bit to preserve the Nelson Mandela’s legacy – he teaches carpentry to those who need an employable skill. What few people know is that he was Mandela’s carpenter for 16 years.
As he saws a piece of wood in his humble garage workshop at his home in Sofiatown, Fitzgerald’s Mandela connection wouldn’t be known were it not for the advert for his workshops that appeared in a community newspaper only weeks before Mandela died.
On the night Fitzgerald finished “polishing” his yet-unpublished book, At Home with Madiba, Mandela died.
“I was 51 when I met him, at his Houghton home before he moved in following his release from prison,” says Fitzgerald.
“I showed him around his house, which I worked in for eight months, getting it ready.”
The meeting marked the beginning of a lasting friendship between the men and their wives, and for Fitzgerald, who is 67, Mandela became the father figure he had not known.
“I grew up as an orphan on Jersey Island (one of the Channel Islands off the English coast), and I never met my father. I grew up in orphanages. When I got to know Mandela, he filled that void. I call him my miracle.”
Fitzgerald was training maintenance staff at the Saxon boutique hotel, which led to his being asked by the government to renovate the home of a “high-profile client”. He had worked at the homes of celebrities, such as talk show host Felicia Mabuza-Suttle and the late TV actor, Gordon Mulholland.
His new client turned out to be Mandela.
After eight months the work was completed and Mandela and Graça Machel moved in. Fitzgerald was then asked by Mandela to stay on, with one of his biggest jobs being to design and fit out the presidential office.
Fitzgerald’s wife, Clare, originally from Ireland, was an invaluable source of inspiration to him during this project. She had been working as a corporate secretary when Fitzgerald asked her to join him as a partner in the work at the Mandela home.
“She has a natural talent in interior design, better than me,” he says.
With time, the couple came to be regarded as part of the family.
“We were among the staff, but Mandela never treated anyone with anything but humility and respect. The one thing he taught me is to always be polite to everyone, something that didn’t always come naturally to me,” Fitzgerald smiles.
His affinity for South Africa and the struggle was seeded long before he met Mandela.
“As a schoolboy I was good at sport and I got into weightlifting. When I was 18, I went to England to compete, and that’s how I met Precious McKenzie, the famous South African-born weightlifter who won a number of world titles.
“He was one of South Africa’s greatest sportsmen, and he was my friend. All my best friends back then were black weightlifters, and through them I became familiar with the struggle here.”
Fitzgerald returned to Jersey to coach weightlifting, then spent months in France, surfing.
“I was a bit of a hippie, into wine, women and song.”
In 1977, he came to South Africa to visit his half-sister who had settled here. “I was supposed to stay for three months, but it became six years as an illegal resident before I was granted residency. I just fell in love with the place. Even though there was no political freedom, it felt free to me, and I was happy to leave Jersey behind.”
Fitzgerald worked for construction companies and was hired to do carpentry and training on prestigious projects, including five-star hotels like the Saxon, Westcliff and the Sandton Sun.
Fitzgerald was working until recently, at the Mandela home and training staff at the Saxon, although over the past four years he has been based more at home so he can take care of Clare, who was diagnosed with osteoporosis seven years ago.
Four months ago, he decided he needed to be with her constantly – she is now in a wheelchair – so he started his home-based workshops.
“Two years ago, Clare nearly died, so I have been nursing her back to better health. She is not able to walk, so she needs me here all the time. I figured that there is so much need out there for skills like carpentry, so now I teach carpentry from home.”
It’s a slower life than their heyday in boutique hotels and the Mandela home, but the Fitzgeralds have prized photographs and paraphernalia, some of it signed by Mandela and Machel, to remind them of their eventful time together.
Fitzgerald says he’ll never forget his “father and spiritual mentor. I gained so much from him. He was the most complete person I’ve ever met.”