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It was late February 1990. I had never heard Nelson Mandela's voice before, so when the voice on the other end of the line said "Goeie dag Meneer Du Preez, dit is Nelson Mandela wat praat", I had no idea whether it was a practical joker or not.

When the caller apologised for not visiting me at my office but instead, on the advice of his bodyguards, was inviting me to his home, I started to contemplate the possibility of it being the real Mandela. But I only knew for certain when I stopped outside the humble Mandela home in Soweto and the tall figure I'd seen on television a week earlier walking free from prison came out to greet me. "Welkom by my huis," he said with a big smile.

It was one of the most extraordinary things that had ever happened to me.

This story really started two years earlier when we launched the first anti-apartheid newspaper in the Afrikaans language, Vrye Weekblad. We sensed then that Mandela would be the key to a peaceful transition in South Africa, and we wrote about him and his ideas often to prepare readers for his inevitable release and leadership role. The front-page lead on our first edition had the headline "Mandela: a New Era."

On July 5 1989, Mandela had tea with State President PW Botha at Tuynhuys. We guessed his release could only be a few months away, but realised that South Africans had no idea what he looked like after 27 years in jail. We asked artist Alistair Findlay to look at available pictures of Mandela before he was jailed and to make him look a quarter century older. We published the painting all over the front page with the words "Mandela: The man the world is waiting for".

In that same edition I wrote an open letter to Mandela pleading with him to take the Afrikaners with him into the new society that he would help create once he was a free man. I knew he would read it because I knew he was one of our subscribers.

I told him that as a child in the Free State town of Kroonstad I feared him as a dangerous terrorist and an enemy of whites and Christians. I idolised Percy Yutar, the prosecutor in the Rivonia trial at the end of which Mandela and others were sentenced to life imprisonment. "I saw it as a victory for us when you were sent to Robben Island. I remember that an uncle of mine said at the time the government was soft on the kaffirs, Mandela should have been hanged. I think I agreed with him."

My story was the story of many young Afrikaners, I wrote. I was fortunate that I was exposed to things that gradually opened my eyes to the realities of South Africa, especially when I started working as a news reporter.

I wrote that Afrikaner racism was the result of manipulative political leadership over a long period, a complete lack of knowledge of their black countrymen and fear. Fear of being treated like intruders in the land of their birth; fear of losing the language and culture they fought for; fear of becoming poor again as they were after the Anglo-Boer War; fear of the unknown.

Talk straight with them, I asked Mandela, and they'll believe you and walk with you. They are actually yearning to be able to face their compatriots without fear or guilt. But they will never feel comfortable toyi-toying or singing freedom songs with raised fists. "They will be worth more to you as they are, with their safari suits, moustaches, pick-up trucks, braais on Saturdays and love of rugby."

Like a good Afrikaner, I ended on a biblical note: "We need a Solomon and a David and a Moses in one person."

During our tea at his home (prison tea: lukewarm and far too much milk), Mandela told me he had read the letter and immediately wrote a response. But the prison authorities didn't allow his letter to leave the prison.
"I hope you didn't think I had bad manners," he said. "I decided then one of the first things I would do after getting my freedom would be to respond to your letter in person."

Mandela mostly spoke Afrikaans to me, and good Afrikaans too, although he apologised for his "Xhosa accent". He gave me an overview of how he saw the Afrikaners' history and stressed the point that they could no longer be called settlers. "They have become Africans themselves, and Africans who have also suffered under colonialism."


I was deeply moved, in that simple township lounge with the old cups and doily on the milk jar like in my grandmother's house, when this man who had just walked out of jail after 27 years said he thought in many ways the Afrikaners had suffered more under apartheid than black South Africans. "It ate away at their souls, at their humanity. Black people always knew they were correct to demand a democracy. They always knew their suffering under apartheid was going to end. We are now going to be liberated, but it will take the Afrikaners a lot longer to also feel liberated."

I drove home from Soweto on that February 1990 afternoon feeling very blessed that I had spent time with a very special human being. Perhaps, I thought, he was the Moses, the David and the Solomon we needed.

Dankie, Madiba.