The day Mandela got lost in a crowd

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jo menell

INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS

Jo Menell, director of Nelson Mandelas official film biography, deliberates with Nelson Mandela in Constantia in the early 1990s. Mandela wanted to be taken for a short drive in the vintage Bentley in the background and Menell was hesitant. Mandela won the day.

Cape Town - Director Jo Menell fears he he could go down in history as “the guy that lost Madiba”.

Faced with bizarre scene of scores of distorted Nelson Mandelas dancing in the streets of the Bahamas, he confronted this possibility.

But the man who was on the verge of becoming the first leader of a democratic South Africa was happily dancing in the heart of a crowd, those around him seemingly unaware he was the real deal.

When Mandela’s bobbing grey head was eventually spotted in between his lookalikes and he was told it was time to go, he replied: “I’m having a really good time.”

Menell told the Cape Times how a 1993 trip to the Bahamas to give Mandela a chance to rest resulted in Mandela’s curiosity leading them to a Mandela-themed street parade.

The trip had come about because Menell, who years later received an Oscar nomination as director of the film biography Mandela, had struggled to get quality time with Mandela in South Africa to glean details about his life.

At that point Mandela was suffering from high blood pressure and swollen ankles.

“So I hatched a scheme,” Menell said. He and anti-apartheid activist Barbara Masekela decided to get Mandela somewhere quiet.

Menell contacted his friend, Irish businessman Tony O’Reilly, who organised them a plane and a stay at O’Reilly’s mansion in the Bahamas.

“So we hijack Madiba. We get him there and he’s resting.”

Menell said he spent time with Mandela early in the mornings. “All was going very well. We were walking all over this island. The officials on the island didn’t know he was there,” he said.

One day, Mandela read a newspaper article about the Junkanoo street parade, a festival of Bahamian culture.

“It’s a big, big deal on the island of Nassau. The entire town goes crazy… Madiba reads about it and says he would like to have a look.”

It was decided Mandela could “just slip in and slip out” and his bodyguards were briefed.

When they arrived at the parade they realised it was Mandela-themed. “You have enormous 4m high Mandelas, a lot of people wearing Mandela masks.”

Menell said rum was flowing freely and “a heavy cloud of dagga” hung over the scene.

Mandela was standing watching when he was suddenly swallowed up by the crowd.

“A group of scantily clad women pulled him into the crowds of people. He goes in to dance, like Madiba does. I realise I’ve lost him. No one knows this is the real Madiba.”

Menell feared he would forever be known as the man who virtually lost South Africa.

After a while, though, he saw Mandela’s head.

“He was dancing in the middle of a crowd,” Menell said.

It all lasted about 45 minutes during the first few days of Mandela’s 10-day stay in the Bahamas.

Jeremy Vearey, now a police major-general, who was one of Mandela’s bodyguards at the time, had been at the Junkanoo parade with Mandela.

He said Mandela stayed in an area very isolated from the rest of the community and it appeared information of his stay had leaked, which was why revellers had donned Mandela masks.

Another incident which showed Mandela’s more adventurous side involved a 1948 vintage Bentley Mark V.

Menell said he and Mandela were at a secluded wine farm in Constantia for work purposes when Mandela spotted the convertible car, an inheritance from Menell’s father.

“Madiba eyed me. He said: ‘I’d like to do a drive.’”

Menell was hesitant, but Mandela said a short drive would do. “The more I drive the more he enjoys it,” Menell said.

Eventually Menell saw that the petrol gauge was on zero and they drove to a garage.

“As the guy was filling it he looks up. He says: ‘Aw. Aw. Mandela. Yoh!’.” Within minutes the car was surrounded by at least 50 Mandela supporters.

“I was desperately trying to pay the bill,” Menell said.

While he was stressing, Mandela happily greeted those around him.

caryn.dolley@inl.co.za

Cape Times


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