Through a hero's lens

16:00, Dec 10 2013
Alan Smythe
SPECS SAVER: Alan Smythe with Nelson Mandela’s spectacles.

Veteran concert promoter Alan Smythe is among the millions of people worldwide focused on funeral plans for the late Nelson Mandela.

But the Waiheke Island resident has a tangible link to the former South African president who died last Friday aged 95 - a pair of reading glasses.

Mr Mandela, whose body will lie in state until Friday in Pretoria, handed them to Mr Smythe in 1995, moments before addressing a crowd at the Auckland Domain.

Mr Smythe organised the event to mark the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, which Mr Mandela was attending.

He was desperate to have the great statesman appear as a special guest, and had earlier flown unannounced to South Africa to plead his case.

He made it as far as an outer office in Mr Mandela's quarters before he was rebuffed.


But there was a last minute change of heart and Mr Mandela arrived on the night of the show.

"I was standing backstage in the darkness and saw this golf buggy coming across, with men jogging alongside, and I thought ‘Oh God, he's coming'," Mr Smythe says.

"Then suddenly there he was . . . my absolute all-time hero . . . stepping out, looking at me, talking to me, shaking my hand, which must have been trembling as I remember him stroking me with both of his hands."

Mr Mandela handed his host his reading glasses before addressing an awe-struck crowd of between 100,000 and, according to some estimates, 250,000 people.

And then he was gone. Mr Smythe later found the glasses where he'd put them for safe keeping - still in the pocket of his dinner suit.

Mr Mandela had forgotten them.

"Anyone who was in the Domain that night will remember forever the mana and grace of a great man . . . a man who after 26 years in a filthy prison was able to forgive those who put him there and go on to become the most charismatic figure of the 20th century," Mr Smythe says.

Mr Mandela's funeral will be held this Sunday in Qunu, the village in Eastern Cape where he was born.

Waiheke Marketplace