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How Long Have You Been Doing This Job?

In December 1993, Nelson Mandela disabused me of all notions of becoming a diplomat.

I'd always envied people who had met Mandela, pumping them for tidbits at our ANC office in Islington, London, where I was still technically in exile although the ANC had been unbanned and the most iconic of political prisoners released.

Our chief representative in the UK, Mendi Msimang, frequently visited home. But, as he had worked with Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo in the early sixties, he was generally jaded with hero worship and I think he believed that there was already too much drama around Mandela. So he was sparing with information. But I remember him telling me that Mandela had a great sense of humour.

I also remember Gill Marcus, normally a hard person to impress, explaining the impact of a newly freed Mandela on her; he stood for a fearlessness that had less to do with invincibility or arrogance than confidence, a man who could neither be tempted nor threatened. Mandela's charisma shone in the words of a young British woman who had been at the concert in honour of Mandela at Wembley Stadium on April 16 1990. With tears streaming down her face, she had stood transfixed as Mandela strode across the stage, waving to the world. "He comes out of 27 years of imprisonment with a smile like that," she said in wonderment. "What a geezer!"

So it was with a certain trepidation that I accompanied Denis Goldberg early one Monday morning in December to Heathrow to meet Nelson Mandela, who was on his way to the Bahamas. My understanding was that we'd assist with customs and immigration and Mandela's transportation to his suite and that would be that, a doddle, as they said in these parts.

But it wasn't as easy as all that. We drove into the special entrance for VIPs all the way to the huge British Airways craft, where the stewardess charged with looking after Mandela was visibly relieved that we'd come to take him from her hands. I suppose there must be something nerve-racking about safeguarding someone treasured the world over. We greeted Mandela, who wore a trench coat over his grey suit, a white shirt and a tie, looking relaxed even though it had been an overnight flight. He and Denis had a cheerful exchange that must have been informed by their history together, since Denis had also been one of the accused in the Rivonia Trial where Mandela and eight others got life imprisonment. Denis Goldberg was released after 22 years and, as the only white accused, had been imprisoned in Pretoria Central Prison.

From the tarmac we went to the Spelthorne Suite on Terminal 2 to wait for customs and immigration clearance. It was here that Denis pulled me to the side and told me that Mandela's minders didn't have visas for the Bahamas. My job then was to sit with Mandela and make sure he was comfortable, while Denis sorted this out with the Bahamanian high commissioner in London. I didn't particularly relish the task. Mandela was calm on the settee across from me, still wearing the trench coat as if he really didn't expect a delay. We chatted a bit, and I reminded him that I'd met him briefly in London at the residence of Sir Shridath Ramphal, who was then the general secretary of the Commonwealth; he knew my brother Pius. I gave him a briefing on what was happening in the UK, the activities of the ANC to raise funds for the elections. I told him about the efforts of the anti-apartheid movement in the UK, which was the strongest in the world, to the point that even members of organised crime were contemplating supporting the struggle in South Africa. I informed him of the work we'd done in the campaigns for the isolation of the regime and the fact that people in the UK were so taken up with the ANC's penchant for formulating policy that I was even asked by university students if the ANC had a policy on the royal family.

As I spoke, I realised that Mandela's attention wavered but he still couldn't bring himself to ask what the hold-up was. I scanned the suite for newspapers and, as it was early Monday morning, there were papers like Sunday Sport and News of the World, which both featured buxom blondes in various poses of undress. I didn't think it would be proper reading material for Mandela. Where the hell was Denis with the visas? Minutes ticked by slowly and I am certain that Mandela could sense my anxiety, because I had run out of topics that would interest him. I looked at him, tall even when seated, his lined face still as if he were done with wrestling with the problems of his troubled country. I knew that he was feeling the weight of the people of South Africa on his shoulders, especially since he was now the president of the African National Congress and there was no doubt that he would ascend to the highest office in the democratic government being born in the halls of the World Trade Centre, in Johannesburg, where the negotiations were being held.

I figured that the weight was even more onerous now that his comrade and friend, Oliver Tambo, had passed away, soon after the two men had seen the country reeling from the cruel assassination of Chris Hani, whom they had both loved. I sensed a great loneliness in Mandela, which, I supposed, must have come from leading a political party from which so much was expected, especially as the body count was increasing every day throughout the land.

It was then that I thought that perhaps I could tell him a joke and take his mind off the troubles. And since he was going to the West Indies, I'd tell him the one I'd got from John Matshikiza. There's this super-duper cool hipster called Bobo Jones, a man so cool and hip he even stopped for a green light. Then, one day, BJ, also known as Mr Refrigerator, was strutting his stuff among friends, sipping a pina colada and smoking a joint when a bolt of lightning entered one window and went out the other and struck a tree outside, followed by a resounding crash. Bobo jumped with a start. His friends jeered, saying he had finally been jolted out of his super-cool style and Bobo, without losing a beat, said: "Jah take a photo; man pose." When John first told me this story I'd found it hilarious. I gazed at Mandela, checking out if he'd got the punch line.

"Very interesting," Mandela said, nodding and looking at me as if seeing me for the first time. And then he asked: "How long have you been doing this job?"

Before I could answer, Denis Goldberg arrived with the visas. Phew!