07/12/2014 Lieutenant-General Vejaynand Ramlakan recieves a Gold Mandela Commemoration Medal from President Jacob Zuma at Waterkloof Airforce Base for his contribution in looking after the former statesman during the period when he fell ill and for his contribution after he passed on. Picture: Phill Magakoe

The men and women who were entrusted with the care of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela during his latter years have been awarded the first Gold Mandela Commemorative medals as a token of the government’s appreciation.

Also among the recipients of 120 medals, pinned on personally by President Jacob Zuma at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria yesterday, were those involved in the planning of the nation’s final farewell to Madiba in Pretoria and at Qunu.

One of the recipients was driver Corporal Thando Mongxangala, who said he had met Mandela three years ago on December 5 – coincidentally the same date as the one on which Mandela passed away last year.

Mongxangala said Mandela became more than a world icon to him, and was a mentor who taught him much that he could pass on to others.

The corporal was part of the driving pool that took take care of the former statesman during his final years, and he had the honour of driving the vehicle carrying Mandela’s coffin in the cortège in the days of his lying-in-state before the funeral.

Mongxangala said he couldn’t believe that Mandela would pass away on the anniversary of the date on which they had first met.

“In the brief period I was with him I spent more time with him than with my own family, and I learnt so much from him,” he said.

“I remember how he used to correct my pronunciation as I was reading the newspaper out to him,” he recalled.

Mongxangala said that during the funeral he had so many mixed emotions, but he had to compose himself and do what was required of him.

“There just wasn’t enough time for it to sink in until we got to Qunu and another official took over from me,” he said.

Chief Warrant Officer Juan Wiese, one of the ceremonial officers, said the planning of Mandela’s lying-in-state at the Union Buildings and his funeral had been very time-consuming.

He was too busy to experience it all but, he said, his wife had taped it on television so that he could watch it later.

“Thank you to the families of our recipients who endured long days of absence from their family members while they were taking care of Madiba to the last day,” Zuma said.