Around the World With Madiba
It was a clear, warm Johannesburg midday when we departed. Though Nelson Mandela was not yet President, the manager of Jan Smuts Airport felt obliged to escort him and his entourage personally to the plane, the SAA flight to Hong Kong.
This was the first time I flew first class. I had flown back and forth to various parts of the world over the past 27 years as an exile, but this time it was to be different. I was accompanying Nelson R Mandela to Kyoto, Japan, as the guest of the International Press Union (IPU), which he was due to address two days hence.
The giant I was travelling with was no stranger to me. I had first met Mandela in the late 1940s when he visited my parents' home in Athlone. My memories of that visit were vague and to a child of seven he must have been just another of the numerous people I was introduced to. But our second and more memorable encounter was in 1961, at No 6 Barrack Street, Cape Town, the offices of the weekly New Age, then edited by Brian Bunting.
Mandela had strolled in, accompanied by Archie Sibeko, one of the local ANC leaders, dressed in an immaculate three-piece suit, towering over everyone in the room. I had quietly introduced myself. There was a polite exchange of words. Twenty-nine years later, in March 1990, when I met him again in Lusaka, to my amazement he remembered that chance encounter in Cape Town, and to my embarrassment, even repeating some of the silly remarks I had made. But that told me something I had not known about the man. He had a formidable memory and took everyone he met seriously, even callow youths like the one I was in 1961.
From the moment we took off there was a buzz on the plane. The whispers had gone around that Mandela was on board. As we crossed the Indian Ocean in the direction of Madagascar, an air steward presented himself and advised Mandela that other passengers would like to greet him. I was a little taken aback by the request and had my opinion been sought, I would have said it was an unreasonable request. But, revealing that highly approachable humanity of his, Madiba readily accepted and told the steward he would greet the others as soon as he had had his meal.
As he had promised, as soon as he had washed down his dinner with some tea, Madiba advised the air steward he was ready. Moving from row to row first in economy, then in business and first-class cabins, he shook the hand of every South African on that plane before settling down for a long night's sleep.
Despite nearly three decades of air travel, I had never mastered the art of getting a restful sleep on board a plane. I was rather concerned that a man of 74 might find it even tougher. No sooner had the lights been turned down and his seat reclined (this was before the flat bed on SAA), Madiba quietly went to sleep with a rather restless younger man seated alongside him, using the time to catch up on some reading. When we were awakened as the plane approached Hong Kong the next morning, I ashamedly apologised that my reading light might have disturbed his sleep. He quickly assured me that it had not, adding that after all for 27 years in prison he had slept with the lights on. Reminded of that I understood too why he had been able to sleep so soundly even in an airline seat. While I had spent most of those nights in the comfort of a bed, or at worst on a mattress on the floor, Madiba had passed his first years in jail on a thin sleeping mat, under the watchful eyes of warders for whose convenience the lights were kept on all night. The disciplines of imprisonment had inured him to petty discomforts like a reading light or a half-reclining seat.
That was the first lesson I learnt travelling with the man so close and personal.
Our arrival in Hong Kong was expected, we discovered soon after crowding into the airport bus. The South African consul had booked a room at the airport hotel as well as two VIP cars to take us to the door. That came as a great relief to me as I had been concerned about what we would do with Mandela during the three hours' wait for the connecting flight to Japan.
The demands on his time seemed unending and it took all the skill I had acquired to keep them down to a manageable number. I had also to consider that this was his very first visit to Japan and we thought he needed time just to take in the sights and visit some historic places.
We were met at the airport by Jerry Matsile, then the head of the ANC's information office in Tokyo. In the few years he had already spent in Japan, Matsile had established himself as the spokesman for South Africa. The apartheid regime's ambassador himself complained about the manner in which Matsile had overshadowed him after 1987. The events of 1990 had put him in the shade. Mandela's visit to Japan was like a proverbial nail in his diplomatic coffin. What saved him the humiliation of being pushed to the fringes was again the magnanimity of Nelson Mandela. He shook hands with him as if they were old friends, allowed him to accompany us on our numerous tours and visits.
That year the IPU was meeting in Kyoto, Japan's capital during the three centuries of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The city had been spared the destruction visited on other Japanese cities during the Second World War, so its picturesque old city with its temples and parks was virtually intact. Thanks to the inculcated reserve of the Japanese we were able to visit the Golden Temple among crowds of Japanese who recognised Madiba, but none approached him for a handshake or the photographs he is usually pestered for in western and African cities.
The most amusing of these sightseeing trips was the visit to the shogun's palace. According to our guide, having usurped the emperor's powers, the shoguns were very nervous about conspiracies and the threat of assassination. As a built-in alarm system, they contrived to install sprung floors throughout the palace, but made sure they all creaked. Thus at any time of the night or day, the shoguns' security services knew who was moving about the palace and exactly where they were. But to make doubly sure, the shoguns also insisted that all courtiers wore kimonos with long, bulky sleeves, so that they encumbered the movements of those at court.
Madiba laughed very heartily about these devices, recalling similar tales he had heard about the methods his own ancestors had devised to thwart their enemies, real and imagined.
The address he made to the IPU was vintage Mandela. He set out in no uncertain terms the ANC's historic vision about the importance of freedom of expression. "We subscribe to these values, not to please or to impress anyone, but for their intrinsic value," he declared.
The representatives of the South African media crowded around the old man to congratulate him on his speech. I detected a hint of relief as well, because, I suspect, they were not fully convinced about Madiba's commitment to media freedom. Subsequent to that he did make some rather hard-hitting comments, critical of the South African media. But on that day most of them felt very reassured that the harassment and persecution of journalists was a thing of the past.
Madiba was obliged to receive the usual round of local dignitaries and notables. When it was the turn of the crown prince, I found an excuse to be some distance from him. As a rather dogmatic republican I could not bring myself to having to bow to royalty. With his usual grace Madiba received the future emperor as he expected. He bowed from the waist, without groveling, raised himself to his full height, and shook the crown prince's hand firmly. After about 30 minutes of animated conversation, he excused himself to speak to another group of eager admirers.
Later that evening we were invited to take dinner with one of the senior princes of Japan. Like myself he had been born during the war years and was very conscious of the place Japan had come to occupy in the post-war world. As if by way of reassuring us, he repeatedly stressed Japan's commitment to world peace and the efficacy of international trade as an instrument of diplomacy. To our slight amusement, he also underscored how offensive Japan, as an Asian nation, had found apartheid. Even I did not remind him how the Japanese had accepted the demeaning status of "honorary whites" so that they could do business with apartheid South Africa.
We spent three days in all in Kyoto after which we flew to Tokyo to catch a connecting flight to London via Amsterdam. I had unthinkingly imagined that our flight would entail a trans-Asia then trans-Europe flight path from east to west. When I heard the announcements once we were airborne, it hit me that we would actually fly east, over the north pole, and approach Europe from a northwesterly direction.
We flew KLM from Tokyo and Madiba was immediately recognised by the air stewardess. Overcome with excitement, she wanted to wait on him hand and foot. The night was already gathering as we took off and I found the attentions of the stewardess a bit intrusive. Picking up this negative vibe, Madiba quietly admonished me. These are the people we relied on to support our struggle, he reminded me. I reluctantly agreed to go along but was pleased to see she pulled back once the lights were dimmed to allow us to sleep.
After what felt like an hour's sleep we were woken up by bright sunlight filtering through the blinded windows. I realised we were now in a new time zone when the purser announced our approach to Anchorage, Alaska, where we would have a brief stopover.
The time in Alaska was around 3pm on the day we had departed Tokyo!Though the stopover in Anchorage was brief, we were allowed to stretch our legs and disembark so that we could stroll around the departure area. The cultural contrast could not have been sharper.
Once they realised who he was, the American airport staff were buzzing around Madiba - this one for a handshake, that one for a quick word, the other for a photograph. Both the security guards and I were relieved when the flight was called and we could move him to a more controlled environment. We took off north towards the pole and were soon again engulfed by night.
As we approached Amsterdam our enthusiastic stewardess called me aside. Bemused, I walked slowly to the galley. "Here is a small donation for your movement," she said as she pressed an envelope containing Dutch guilders, Japanese yen and a few other currencies into my hand. During the night, it turned out, she had passed word to the airline staff that Nelson Mandela was in her first-class cabin. They had spontaneously set a quick fund-raising drive among themselves, collecting the spare change they had to make this token contribution to the ANC. I was almost moved to tears. Humbled by this gesture and Mandela's words to me the previous night, I returned to my seat and reported this to Madiba.
"Please, get her name, before we disembark," he instructed me. I duly persuade the stewardess to give me her card. On arrival back in Johannesburg, I persuaded Thomas Nkobi, then treasurer-general of the ANC, to drop her a thank you note for that donation.
Our visit to London had two purposes. The first was a meeting with John Major, the British Prime Minister; the second was the unveiling of Mandela's image at Madame Tussauds waxworks museum.
In all the years I had spent in London, the closest I had ever come to Downing Street was on mass demonstrations. This time I was to enter through the front door. As I approached I realised how much had changed in Britain during the preceding 15 years. Downing Street was cordoned off with a safety fence. Armed police, an unusual sight in Britain, milled around the entrance on Whitehall and I could sense the high-powered binoculars that were tracking my movements as I came closer to the intersection. By a stroke of luck Sir Renfrew, the UK's previous ambassador to South Africa, was approaching Downing Street from the opposite direction. On recognising me he facilitated my passage through that obstacle course of security measures. A ring at the front door, and here I was at the centre of power in the UK!
What struck me when John Major finally walked into the room was the awe with which he regarded Madiba. Here was the prime minister of one of the most powerful countries in our world, meeting a man who barely three years ago was being ordered about by prison warders, and the deep sense of respect he felt was pervasive.
Madiba was forthright and matter-of-fact in his briefing. He ended off by telling John Major that there was a hotline between him and George Bush, then President of the US.
We left Downing Street very satisfied that even if he was a Conservative PM, John Major was realistic enough to know that he had met South Africa's future President.
Madame Tussauds was a very different matter. Relaxed and surrounded by admiring faces, Madiba came into his own. He did the usual round of handshakes for anyone who proffered their hand, then, to my amazement, recognised my daughter Nandi among the crowd. Beaming with his inimitable warm smile he kissed her fondly and brought her into the centre of the event alongside him.
We boarded our return flight to Johannesburg the next evening. As we took our seats, I remarked, "Do you realise we have actually circumnavigated the globe!"
"Is that so?" was his inscrutable response.
It had indeed been a memorable trip, during which I had observed a person regarded as an icon interact with the great, the near great, the editors of some of the most important newspapers in the world, a future emperor, ordinary working people and children. All of them had been drawn by an invisible but no less real magnetism. All had been accepted with the same warmth and regard.
I suppose that says it all.