Laughing his way through life
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Nelson Mandela always had a joke or a quick quip for those he met, regardless of how busy his schedule was, writes Rich Mkhondo.
Nelson Mandela’s example of humility, sacrifice and kindness in the face of enmity is well-known all over the world. But his witty sense of humour and few jokes made his audience cry with laughter. He disarmed even the hard-nosed and cynical journalists and reporters.
As foreign correspondent for Thomson Reuters in the 1990s, I covered his release from prison, his electioneering ahead of the first democratic elections in 1994 and later as Washington correspondent for Independent Newspapers. I enjoyed his often-repeated jokes.
Sometimes I was his target among fellow journalists. When I introduced my wife, Lindiwe, to him at the launch of his book, Long Walk to Freedom, he jokingly asked her: “Oh, Lindiwe, when did you propose to Rich?” My wife laughed and confessed that I was the one who went down my knees and proposed to her. She obviously did not get the joke.
I was surprised when a few weeks later, he stopped to ask me how my wife Lindiwe was doing and whether she was still taking good care of me.
My first laughter was from one of his autobiographies when he wrote that the cockroach in his prison cell was not to be squashed, “because how would its mommy and daddy feel?”
The former president enjoyed introducing himself to people who knew him. When I asked him why he did that, he said that, out of respect, he was not supposed to presume that people knew who he was. One day, he shook my hand and said: “This is Nelson. Do you still remember me?”
During the next years, I enjoyed three of his favourite jokes whenever I travelled with him, particularly in the US and London.
While visiting Boston with him, he had his audience in stitches with anecdotes of how a 4-year-old girl told him how stupid he was.
“I met this 4-year-old girl who mocked me for my white and greying hair. She asked me how old I was. I told her I can’t remember my age, but I was born a long time ago.
“She then went to ask me, Old man, I am told you spent some time in jail. Why did you go jail?”
Mandela replied: “I didn’t go because I liked it. Some people sent me there.”
“How many years did you spend in jail?” the girl asked. “I can’t remember, but it was a long, long time,” Mandela replied.
The girl mockingly looked at Mandela and said: “You are such a stupid old man, aren’t you.”
When his press minder, the late Parks Mankahlana, offered only photo opportunities and no questions during his meetings with world leaders, President Mandela often defied him, mockingly saying, “Please allow Rich to ask just one question”.
At a press conference with former Canadian prime minister Jean Chrétien, Mandela told him how I was stalking him across the US, and that I was now his best friend and should be given the honour to ask the first question.
When I gave him my book, Reporting South Africa, which chronicled South Africa’s transition to democracy, he wrote me a note, saying “Thank you to a far-sighted journalist”. Whenever I bumped into him during press conferences, he gave me updates of how many chapters he had read.
In his 80s, Mandela liked to use his age to make his audience feel at ease. I was with him at the British Labour Party Congress where, as a guest speaker, he made delegates laugh when he said: “I’m intimidated. Tony (Blair, then Labour Party leader and British prime minister), you know as well as I do that the reason why there are so many people here at this moment is purely out of curiosity. They want to see what a pensioner from the colonies looks like.’” He repeated this joke many times, but it always sounded fresh.
Mandela loved children. When Joburg boy Craig Joseph invited Mandela to his bar mitzvah, it was only as a joke to please his friends. But, to his astonishment, the South African president accepted. At the ceremony marking Craig’s transition to manhood, the youngster told Mandela: “You have proven to me that dreams can come true. Your presence here is further proof that you are not only a great leader, but a kind and caring person.”
Perhaps the greatest lesson Mandela humorously taught us was that, while bad things do happen to good people, we still have the freedom and the responsibility to decide how to respond to injustice, cruelty and violence and how they will affect our spirits, hearts and minds.
Perhaps his blend of idealism and pragmatism was always on view when he explained why black South Africans never sought vengeance.
One example came when I went to the White House with him during the height of former US president Bill Clinton’s sex scandal.
In attendance at the White House reception were black religious and education leaders, who had come to support the embattled US leader over his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
At the function, Mandela playfully abandoned a pledge not to interfere in the scandal.
“We are aware of the national debate that is taking place in this country about the president, and it is not our business to interfere in this matter.
“But we do wish to say that President Clinton is a friend of South Africa and Africa. And I believe the friend of the great mass of black people, and the minorities and the disabled of the United States,” Mandela said to great applause.
“We have often said that our morality does not allow us to desert our friends. And we will doubtless say tonight: we are thinking of you in this difficult and discouraging time in your life.”
Clinton watched Mandela deliver the tribute with a sombre expression and eyes blinking rapidly.
This ringing endorsement prompted Clinton to publicly state how Mandela helped him in his darkest hour, explaining that the many personal and political controversies of his tenure had forced him to re-examine his life and to become “a better person”.
“President Mandela helped me to deal with this. He’s a friend of mine and I talked to him a lot.”
Later the US leader told British journalist Harold Evans how Mandela’s counsel was both spiritual and pragmatic.
“He said the only way things like (the impeachment fight) destroy you is if you give them permission to destroy you… He said as long as you don’t (become bitter) – if you’re not embittered by this, if you don’t get angry all the time, if you just let it go and keep going – then you’ll be fine.’’
His humour and jovial demeanour were not just a ploy to charm crowds or disarm nervous guests, as he had used them to good effect in the political arena.
Last, I will never forget how Mandela disarmed his political opponents. While covering the Codesa (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) talks, I marvelled at how he disarmed white supremacist arguments. He often teased then Freedom Front leader, the late General Constand Viljoen, by saying: “We have to let the white man talk; after all, he is from the supreme race.”
Mandela taught us so much about so many things. During his imprisonment, he endured physical and emotional abuse, isolation and degradation. Perhaps the most important lesson of life for us is that he survived the bitterness of tyranny, jail and oppression without falling prey to his oppressors’ hate.
Somehow, his trials purified his spirit and clarified his vision, giving him the strength to be a free man, even behind bars, and to remain free of anger and hatred when he was at last released.
That freedom was not only reflected in the way he governed as president, bringing those who had oppressed him and his fellow blacks in to a government of unity.
He not only taught us reconciliation and forgiveness, but also in his humility and sense of humour always made us laugh at ourselves, to forget the suffering we endured under apartheid.
May his humour and greatness be forever imprinted on this planet and beyond.
* Rich Mkhondo, executive for corporate affairs at MTN Group, was a foreign correspondent for Thomson Reuters during the 1990s and Washington correspondent for Independent Newspapers between 1996 and 2000. He writes in his personal capacity.