Mandela cast instant spell on Timaru man

22:40, Dec 05 2013
nelson mandela
CHARISMA: Future president of South Africa Nelson Mandela meets Timaru man Emmett Mitten.

When Timaru man Emmett Mitten went to meet Nelson Mandela he considered him a terrorist - within moments he became the most charismatic person he had ever met.

With American presidents, royalty, the Pope and world figureheads to compare him with, Mr Mitten is in a unique position to make such a statement.

He was in South Africa in 1992, the year after Mr Mandela had been released from prison. Following his retirement from the police, he was sent to South Africa as part of an observer group for the United Nations, leading up to the first democratic elections, which in 1994 saw Mr Mandela become president and end apartheid.

''It was very last minute, in that I was asked on a Tuesday and left on the Thursday. It was for six weeks; I came back nine months later. The first week we concentrated on meeting the leaders of the different political parties. One of those was Nelson Mandela, the leader of the ANC.

''Having a police background I thought I was going to meet a terrorist because of the time he had spent in jail. He walked into the room with a big smile, in a suit and shook my hand.

''He was very well briefed, he said, 'Ahhh, the New Zealander, how is Mr Bolger?' He also talked about New Zealand cricket and about cheese from Taranaki.


''I still don't know how to explain it, he was so charismatic, we all went away from the meeting saying what a great man he was.

''I have met royalty, presidents and seen the Pope speak, but they have never received the reaction I saw Mandela get.  People would greet him with joy.''

He attended many rallies and meetings with Mr Mandela and continued to be amazed at the reaction he would garner every time.

''If [former president F W] de Klerk had not released Mandela from prison I think they would still be fighting. Black South Africans had a very poor existence, and I think that Mandela, who had been in jail for terrorism, was their hero. He became the hero and figurehead for the movement to have a democracy.''

Surviving 27 years in custody was a major feat in itself, he said.

''I spoke to a murderer who spent 22 years in jail in New Zealand in better conditions than Mandela, and he was a broken man.''

The death of Mr Mandela could now cause unrest, he said.

''I wouldn't like to be there when he dies. There will be a terrible outpouring of grief which might open old wounds. On the other hand it might not.

''The average black South African still has nothing and he is their god; when he goes they will have nothing again.''

Mr Mitten knows only too well the violence unrest in South Africa can bring, having feared for his life numerous times there and been caught up in shootouts.

''In 1992 there were 22,000 murders, 15,000 killed in road accidents and 1200 police committed suicide.

''They didn't have the same regard for the sanctity of human life. I ran into a gang with machetes and bottles at a rally and I thought this could be it, then the police turned up with machine guns. You lived with that fear all the time.''

The Timaru Herald