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Basking in the aura of an icon

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IOL pic dec9 mandela tribute photo with flowers


A photograph of the late Nelson Mandela is surrounded by flowers during a tribute event. Picture: Mark Wessels

Meeting President Nelson Mandela was one of the most memorable and electrifying experiences of my life, says Jos Charle.

When the forerunner of the National Press Club – the Pretoria Press Club – awarded him the Newsmaker of the Year award in 1994 my wife, Ntsako, and I were honoured to be asked to receive him when he arrived.

I remember the nerves as we waited at the corner of Vermeulen (now Madiba) and Prinsloo streets at the Sammy Marks Conference Centre – suitably attired in black tie and my wife in a stunning evening gown.

We arrived well in time for our assignment but I remember how our nerves just wouldn’t calm down as his security team escorted us to where we had to receive him.

It was surreal.

From the moment his motorcade left the official residence of Mahlamba’Ndlopfu at the Bryntirion estate up to when we could see the flashing blue lights, we were kept in the loop via the VIP guards’ two-way radios.

It seemed as if we were watching a movie as every step of Mandela’s way to the venue was described in detail – what intersection they were approaching, how much traffic was moving about and the exact minute his escort would arrive.

During all this time my wife and I stood around nervously kicking our heels, imploring each other: What are going to say him? What are we going to talk about as we walk to the lift, take the lift upstairs and then walk several metres towards the function hall?

Nothing could have prepared us for this moment.

Being a journalist, I’d seen Mandela “live” before. I remembered that the first thing that struck me when I saw him for the first time was how tall he was and how overwhelming his presence was.

After a few minutes of waiting Mandela’s motorcade arrived and the security men told us exactly where to stand and what to do as he alighted from the vehicle:

* Do not move forward

* Wait for him to fully alight from the car and for him to offer his handshake

* Do not hug him – unless he offers to do so (he didn’t; but he warmly kissed my wife on both cheeks!)

* Do not walk behind him. Stay by his side, etc.

We escorted Mandela to the lifts with security men leading the way, while some were on our sides and others followed behind.

Mandela did most of the talking and all we could do is giggle nervously and make agreeable sounds like: “Yes, yes, Mr President”, “Okay”, “Oh, how wonderful”, etc.

As we entered the lift something I will always remember happened.

Mandela beckoned to my wife to go ahead and he followed.

As he entered the lift, the doors started to close and with his security detail looking on, he turned around, stretched out his arms and blocked the closing doors so the rest of us could enter.

I was stunned. And seemingly so were his security men. It seemed like the world had stopped for a moment. There was total silence for a moment. And he broke it by saying something like: “We are all safe… let’s go (or words to that effect).”

I have no recollection of how the rest of the evening went; but at least I have fond memories of the first part of the evening. And these my wife and I will cherish forever.

* Jos Charle is an executive editor of the Pretoria News and chairman of the National Press Club.

Pretoria News

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