My special day with Mandela

Nelson Mandela
Nelson Mandela

To this day I choke up privately whenever Nelson Mandela - or Madiba, as we called him - comes up in conversation. Not only because of who and what he was, but because it reminds me of an ordinary day turned extraordinary when I had two private minutes with him when he was South Africa's president.

I was living in Pretoria at the time and this brief, yet ever-memorable, pair of events started on a day not remembered fondly by New Zealanders.

Eighteen years ago, on June 24, Joel Stransky kicked the drop goal that sank the All Blacks in the Rugby World Cup final at Ellis Park.

For once, South Africans of all colours, creeds and hues danced, drank and sang together in the streets. The Rainbow Nation had won. And whereas rugby had long been the exclusive domain of "whites only" - so much so that most indigenous Africans would cheer for opponents of the Springboks during tours in the apartheid era - this time just about everyone shared in the joy because one man had given his blessing to the sport.

That man was Madiba. Him wearing that replica jersey of Springboks captain Francois Pienaar before the final, and holding aloft the cup afterwards, were both humbling and powerful images of forgiveness and unification in a torn, broken land.

I was at that match and, along with many others at a pre-match function, was introduced to Mandela. He was exactly as I had heard from others who'd been lucky enough to meet him: sincere, warm, kind.

And even though he had so little time and so many people to meet, he'd never only shake a hand or say only "hello". He gave each and every one a direct look in the eyes, and though his minders tried to shuffle him on, he had a personal word with everyone, before moving down the line.

"You're a big man, the Springboks could do with you on their side," he chuckled, gave my hand a firm squeeze and stepped to his left to enchant the next person.

ABOUT two weeks later, I again got to see Mandela, but in a very different setting. The joy and jubilation had died down. That final victory was long forgotten. Reality had taken hold again. Poverty. Famine. Industrial action. Crime and violence. And so, as a journalist, I headed off to a press conference on one of the many harrowing issues with which post-apartheid South Africa was grappling.

Once the president had said his bit, the floor was open to media questions. I had my hand up and, on being given the microphone, started with what is usually protocol at such events - saying your name and the organisation you represent.

"Mr Mandela, . . ."

"Eric," he interrupted with a slight wave, "that was a v-e-r-y, v-e-r-y special day for our country, wasn't it. Nice to see you again."

I could not - and still can't - recall what I was going to ask. Instead I started blubbing, and simply sat down.

"Come and see me afterwards with your question," he said.

Which I did. He was no longer interested in my media question. He wanted to know why I had cried. And why I again had tears in my eyes.

I tried to explain how humbled I felt that he had remembered my name. And that I was astounded at his complete lack of bitterness towards any white person. And that I was deeply, deeply sorry - staunchly anti-apartheid as our family had been - for the hurt and pain that apartheid had caused.

Mandela listened intently, then put his arm around my shoulders, and looked straight into my eyes.

"Don't go on about the past. It is all history. We have to move on and build. Just as I have no reason to be angry, you have no reason to be sorry. So you can stop crying.

"And as for remembering your name . . . what kind of president would I be of this Rainbow Nation if I did not remember the names of my brothers and sisters?"

Nelson Rolihlahla "Madiba" Mandela - rest in peace, brother.

Eric Janssen is the Digital Editor of and now lives in Wellington.

The Dominion Post