tribute mary

Dear Madiba

I am one of the many people who have had the honour of working with you a little and I have regarded it as a special privilege. You have contributed so much to the hope we all continue to have in our beloved country despite the challenges of consolidating our democracy and bringing about the changes that will truly improve the lives of so many of our people who are still marginalised in so many ways. What you have done, and continue to do, is a source of strength and inspiration as we continue to work for the ideals you have cherished and for which you have made so many sacrifices.

I have many memories of the times I have been fortunate to be in close contact with you. Perhaps the deepest personal appreciation I have is for an incident you will not even remember. To me, it was an act of enormous empathy and consideration.

I think it was in 1997 or 1998. I have two children who were at that stage perhaps six and 10. My six-year-old, Jessica, has always been socially confident. Ben has always struggled with feeling socially ill at ease and withdraws in extreme personal discomfort in social occasions. I took them with me to an event where you were to speak in the Vaal. When I told them you would be there, they were both excited. Jess picked a bunch of flowers, and as we were on the podium, had no difficulty in approaching you and presenting these. You received the humble gift from a small child with your customary graciousness.

When you left, you greeted all of the people on the stage as you walked past them. I could see my son withdraw into himself behind a book as you approached - I could feel his anxiety and apprehension as you approached as he simply did not have the social confidence to know what to do. I was aware that his retreat could be interpreted as rudeness, which would torment him, but did not know how to help him. You stopped, waited for him to emerge from behind the book, and said something like: "I am sorry to disturb you as you read" - you put your hand out to him and he took it gratefully.

It would have been easy for you to hurry on and ignore a small child, but I believe that you discerned his anguish and reached out to him. It was an extraordinary gift of generosity that you gave to one young person.

This was a small incident but it is to me a cherished memory of a great man who cares about, and has insight into, the human frailty of all of us.