US First Lady Michelle Obama had an unscheduled meeting with Nelson Mandela at his Houghton, Joburg, home on Tuesday, the second day of her visit to South Africa.
After being shown Mandela prison memorabilia at the Nelson Mandela Foundation just around the corner, Obama was suddenly whisked off to meet the former president.
There had been concern that Mandela, 92, might be too frail to meet her, so the meeting was not on the official schedule. But Mandela was in fine form, according to a relative who was at the 30-minute meeting. “It was incredible,” she said.
Earlier in the day Obama had coffee with her counterpart, one of President Jacob Zuma’s wives, Nompumelelo Ntuli, at the presidential residence, Mahlamba Ndlopfu.
She did not meet the president as he was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, co-chairing the South Africa-DRC Binational Commission with President Joseph Kabila.
“Mrs Zuma shared her concern and passion for assisting orphans and vulnerable children with Mrs Obama, who in turn briefed her on the purpose of her visit and her interest in uplifting women,” the Presidency said.
“Mrs Zuma confirmed the high regard placed by South Africa on relations with the US and wished Mrs Obama well on her visit to southern Africa.”
Obama was then guest of honour at a reception given by US ambassador Donald Gips for her to meet prominent South Africans, including ANC veteran Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, social activist Jay Naidoo, businessman Patrice Motsepe, and Free State University rector Jonathan Jansen. Newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube tweeted that “there were about 100 people there and she took time to talk to each one of them. Awesome.”
At the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Obama, with her daughters, Malia and Sasha, mother Marian Robinson and nephew and niece Avery and Leslie Robinson, met Graça Machel and some of Mandela’s relatives.
These included Mandela’s daughters, Maki Mandela and Zenani Dlamini, granddaughters Ndileka Mandela, Zinhle Nkosi, Swati Dlamini, Zaziwe Manaway and Zoleka Mandela, and several great-grandchildren.
Machel and the foundation’s curator, Verne Harris, then showed Obama and her family around a special exhibition of Mandela’s notes from his 27 years in prison and other memorabilia.
Harris said the earliest document was Mandela’s Methodist Church membership card from 1929, when he was 11.
A particularly poignant part of the exhibition was a series of desk calendars produced by Satour – the South African tourist authority – that Mandela ordered every year from 1976 while he was in prison.
Harris told Obama that these calendars, with their scenes of sunny beaches and other holiday destinations, sat on Mandela’s desk in his tiny cells on Robben Island and at Pollsmoor and Victor Verster prisons.
He drew the attention of Maila and Sasha to Mandela’s entry for Friday, February 26, 1988, when he was in Pollsmoor: “Black cat visits the cell. Very cute and playful. Sleeps alongside me on the bed. The following morning, owner claims it.”
Harris said Mandela had recorded his blood pressure and weight every day and painstakingly had to revise his notes because he was allowed only a limited quota of notepaper.
The foundation gave Obama two books about Mandela: Nelson Mandela by Himself, a book of his quotations which is to be launched in a few days, and Prisoner In The Garden. - Foreign Editor