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How I met Madiba

It was in 1955 in Johannesburg. I was a student at the Jan Hofmeyr School of Social Work. In my first year I got to know Winnie Madikizela and Marcia Finca, who were in their second year but who were from my part of the world (the Transkei). They welcomed me as a "home girl" and we became friends. They showed me the ways of Joburg. One day Winnie invited us to go with her to the offices of certain lawyers in town. Oliver Tambo was from her town in the Transkei - Bizana - and she wanted to pay him a visit. Buti Tambo received us warmly but seemed very reserved. Then in walks this tall, rather attractive person with a very fashionable parting in his hair. We all looked at him. He wanted to know who we were and where we came from, and offered us tea. We were feeling coy and shy. We ate Lemon Creams - the first time I tasted them. Something I couldn't afford!

We were fascinated with that name: Rolihlahla. We would never call him Nelson. He was Buti Rolihlahla. Occasionally Buti Rolihlahla would come and visit us in our hostel in Jeppe Street. It was the same hostel where Adelaide Tambo had lived. He always visited all three of us. We never suspected until much later that there was a bigger reason than the three of us for his visits. For a long time I never knew that there was a relationship brewing between him and Winnie. They were very discreet.

Madiba knew my sister Nondyebo Jane, who was a nurse at Baragwanath Hospital. She was active in politics. Occasionally I would meet him at my sister's place. In 1956 Madiba introduced me to Advocate Duma Nokwe (the first black advocate in South Africa) - I didn't quite understand at the time how important he was in the legal hierarchy. Madiba asked him to give me a lift back to the hostel.

I met Duma Nokwe again when I was in exile in Geneva in 1969. I felt an almost moral obligation to take care of him. We would always talk about Rolihlahla. My brother Fikile was on Robben Island with Mandela at that time. His name became alive. I visited Robben Island - my brother gave me a coded message that Rolihlahla wanted me to take to Chief Dalindyebo Sabata in the Transkei. I was very anxious. All our conversations on the Island were recorded. I remember leaving Robben Island feeling sick with worry. I had to travel to the Transkei - and then the Chief didn't want to meet me! He was suspicious. Dr Don Luswazi finally introduced me to the Chief. He had to clear my name!

I was in Geneva for 21 years with the World Council of Churches. The International Red Cross had started visiting Robben Island. When their representative came back to Geneva, he would bear greetings from Mandela - and I would then have to convey the greetings to Oliver Tambo in London.

When discussions started on the return home of people in exile, Madiba was very reluctant to involve the UN. I was in Geneva at the time with the World Council of Churches. He asked me to be part of his delegation in negotiations with the UNHCR. Madiba believed that the SACC had the expertise and capacity to manage the process of returnees. "With all your experience, we don't need the UN," he said. The kind of confidence he expressed was just amazing!

Madiba held the SACC and churches in high esteem. We were the first to get feedback from the Groote Schuur talks. After the feedback meetings Madiba would remark to me: "Why are you the only woman in these meetings?'" He would complain to the churches on our behalf, asking them why they weren't giving women a chance.

When Dominee Johan Heyns was gunned down in Pretoria, Madiba was the first person to phone me at 6.15 that morning. He said I should mobilise the churches. But the Dutch Reformed Church wasn't even a member of the SACC! But Madiba, forever forgiving, says to me I should inform and mobilise the churches and go in to pay my condolences. I thought, heavens, here is Madiba phoning me for a DRC minister!

Then he appointed me as chair of the IEC. I remember waking up on election day 1999 in fear and trembling. He phones at 6am. "Mkhiwa," he says," I thought I should call you this morning and wish you good luck with these elections."

Madiba, kaloku wena ungumntu wokuthandaza.