Ayesha Ismail, freelance foreign correspondent and chief executive of Ayesha Ismail Media Inc, nicknamed “Madiba se kind” by a colleague
A major part of my career as a journalist was spent covering the latter part of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment: the historic announcement on February 2, 1990, that Mandela and other political prisoners would be released and the unbanning of political organisations; his release in 1990; his first public appearance as a free man on the Grand Parade; his inauguration as president; as well as his last address to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in 1999.
I was literally been walking behind him with a notebook, tape recorder and camera for many years.
I remember standing outside Victor Verster Prison with scores of journalists and thousands of other people. I took a minute to think about what South Africa would be like with Mandela as a free man. I looked up and there he was walking out of the gates of the prison waving to us with a clenched fist. I realised that his freedom was my freedom. I remember attending his very first press conference after his release. I sat at his feet with scores of other journalists. I was in awe of Mandela and hung on to every word he was saying. After fielding countless questions from journalists, Mandela looked down at me and said: “And you, don’t you have anything to ask me?” I was at a loss for words. After that press conference, I attended several others over the years and almost every time, Mandela would make a point of acknowledging my presence.
Carlyn Daniels, IT support at Smith Tabata Buchanan Boyes
I had the pleasure and great honour of holding Madiba’s hand twice. I even flirted with him and he flirted back. I worked at the Mount Nelson Hotel reception at the time. It could have been in 1996. He asked me where I lived and how I got home, especially because it was late in the evening. I responded by making eyes at him and asked him if he wanted to take me home because of the questions. He responded with a beautiful smile and said: “Well, maybe.” This all happened while he held my hand. This was during peak season and news spread so quickly in the hotel. The next day I had almost all the guests coming to see who the young lady was who flirted with the president.
James Emslie, studying a master’s in law at University College London
As a kid, he came to my house in Newlands in the late 1990s, looking for property to buy, to retire to. He asked me if I wanted to be president one day. I said: “No way! I just wanna write music, man.” He seemed to find my response pretty funny. I was serious though – still am!
Dr Desmond Woolf, Oranjezicht doctor
On a Sunday afternoon in February 1990, we were sitting at home in Rondebosch just watching TV. A friend came to visit and said: “Nelson Mandela is sitting outside your house.” We trooped outside and there were three cars, and he was in the middle car, looking at notes. Winnie Mandela sat at the back on the opposite side. They were sitting as far apart as they could be. My twin boys were one year old, and I was holding one son, my wife had the other. Mandela rolled down the window and asked my son’s name, and bounced him on his knee. He tried to pick up my other son, who started crying. Mandela said: “He’s not as friendly as his brother.”
We found out later he’d come from prison and was on his way to town. But it was too crowded on Adderley Street, so they landed up on this little quiet road in Rondebosch, waiting for crowds to die down.
About a year later, I had a minute alone with him and asked if he remembered. He said that he did.
Goosain Emeran, former principal of Trafalgar High School
I met Mandela because I was the secretary of the principals’ forum. He invited us and our wives to his residence for supper in 1995. I didn’t have any paper for him to write on, so I gave him three R10 notes and he wrote beautiful messages on them for my three daughters, and signed them. That man was so human. He impressed all of us. Then at exam time, he wrote a message for the pupils, saying they must study hard and be successful. I printed copies of it and put it in everybody’s report cards.
Steve Kromberg, general manager of Grocott’s Mail newspaper in Grahamstown
Whenever I think of Nelson Mandela, I see the image of him singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to a nursery school full of adoring children.
I had watched him sing that song in his unmistakable rounded voice while he danced with his trademark bent-arm jive. He was relaxed and happy, clearly enjoying his newfound freedom having recently ended his term as president.
I’d been asked to write the business plan for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which was to take forward his legacy.
That amazing morning in 1999, we visited three humble home-based nursery schools in working-class areas of Johannesburg. He insisted, of course, that the selection represented all shades of South Africa.
It was a “top-secret” visit. No press, no public schedule, just stopping off casually to hand out sweets and sing songs. Because he loved hanging out with children.
Sharon Neves, Rhodes University student
I met Nelson Mandela in 1995. I was a student at Waterford Kamhlaba in Mbabane, Swaziland. We had lunch with him because his children went to this school. I was honoured to share a table, a handshake and a conversation with him. Having had lunch with him is priceless. I heard people say they would love that opportunity and I was like, damn, I have. We spoke about June 16 and we sang struggle songs. He also asked how it felt being in a multiracial school.
He was impressed and deeply touched that at school we commemorated June 16 and sang songs like Senzeni Na.
Vivek Daya, manager at Guess jeans in Bloemfontein
I met Mandela in Aliwal North in 1994. I was chosen to give him a gift from the ANC office of Aliwal North. I was four years old at the time. I was given a task to present him with a gift or a token of appreciation. I ended up wetting my pants due to being very shy. The only words I remember him saying were: “You are the leaders of tomorrow,” and he smiled. Mandela indirectly had an influence on me due to my leadership roles during my schooling career, as well as my job. I do look up to the man as a figure of freedom and unity. I owe my inspiration to him.
Katherine Coutras, postgraduate accounting student at UCT
I met Nelson Mandela on March 21, 1995, when I was four. It was after a service for Human Rights Day at St George’s Cathedral, which was attended by Queen Elizabeth II while on an official visit.
After the service he started walking into the crowd, accompanied by bodyguards. I was on my dad’s shoulders and, not wanting to walk directly into the crowd, my dad positioned himself in an area towards which Mandela was walking.
He kept walking in our direction surrounded by his security and the crowds. Before we knew it, he stopped in front of me and my dad and the bodyguards surrounded the three of us, protecting us from the pushing crowd.
He extended his hand and greeted my father, and then looked up at me on my dad’s shoulders. I was holding a bunch of flowers which I offered to him. Mandela asked: “Are those for me?” with his beautiful smile.
As I reached down to give them to him he cupped my face in his hands, kissed my cheek and said: “You make me so happy,” in his warm measured way.
It was amazing how focused he was on the moment and oblivious to the huge crowds around us.
When my sister saw that I didn’t have my flowers anymore, she was devastated because she knew I must have given them to Mandela. A few days later, my mum posted her flowers to him with a letter, and we received a reply saying thank you from his office.
Chris Holdridge, studying towards PhD in history at the University of Sydney
In December 2008, I had the privilege of meeting Nelson Mandela for a brief moment as part of a Mandela Rhodes Scholarship. On the day we met Mandela, each Mandela Rhodes scholar queued to meet him individually in the next room. When my turn came, I sat in a chair next to him and shook hands. I immediately noticed his integrity, and his determined, vital personality despite his age of 90 at the time. He asked me what I was studying, to which I responded, “history”. His eyes lit up, as he stated the importance of South Africans studying their past, even if it is a painful one. The encounter was brief, but it left an impression on me. Nelson Mandela’s legacy is one of hope and reconciliation.
Taryn Lamberti, freelance writer and décor stylist in Johannesburg
I had a one-on-one chat with him on Christmas Day in 1995. I was a reporter at the Star and was sent to Qunu to see him hand out Christmas gifts to the local kids. It was an amazing experience.
Georgia Lahusen, theatre performance student at UCT
My mom, Mary-Anne Lahusen, was on the electoral college to elect the next chancellor of UCT, and they chose Graça Machel in 1999. They had a dinner to celebrate and, of course, Madiba was there. My mom decided to walk up to him after pudding. It turned out that he knew my grandfather, Carl Lahusen, who was the German ambassador to South Africa during the 1980s, and had supported Madiba when he was on Robben Island. My mom then asked him to write a message for me on the menu that was on the table. It says: “Dear Georgia, to one of our future leaders. With best wishes Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela.” I still have the message.
*Buy any Independent weekend newspaper for the special Nelson Mandela supplement.