tribute robin

I first met Nelson Mandela three days after his release from jail. To the surprise of the attendant press, he asked for his regards to be passed to Margaret Thatcher, still regarded as a bête noire by the ANC. A series of meetings followed in a tiny matchbox house in Soweto, as he resisted initially Winnie's demands that he should move into her villa, known to the locals as Beverly Hills. As he did not want to be protected by the South African police, we agreed to train his bodyguards. We also helped to improve security at his house.

After a month I suggested to him that our next meeting should be in one of the best restaurants in Johannesburg, none of which he had been able to frequent for the past three decades. A sharp intake of breath was heard when I revealed the identity of my guest, still regarded as a terrorist by most white South Africans. Mandela proceeded to greet by name the astonished mining magnates lunching there before diving into the kitchen, as he always did, to thank the staff that had prepared his meal. By the time he left, a crowd had formed in the street outside.

Mandela was very anxious about his first meeting with Margaret Thatcher. His method with those who did not agree with him was to try by all possible means to win them over to his side - an art he had practised with outstanding success on his chief warder in jail, who ended up serving as his cook. When asked how he should tackle her, we agreed that we should have a rehearsal for the meeting, with him playing the role of Mandela and me that of the Prime Minister. This gave me an opportunity to urge him to stop talking nonsense about nationalising the banks and the mines. He seemed to find this no holds barred exchange amusing.

I flew to London to see Mrs Thatcher before the meeting. I explained that Mandela had waited 27 years to tell her his side of the story and I hoped that she would let him do so. "You mean I mustn't interrupt him?" she enquired incredulously. But she did then listen for over an hour to his description of his attempts to negotiate with the apartheid regime. There followed an animated discussion over lunch at which she attempted to explain basic economics. This argument went on so long that the press assembled in Downing Street began to chant "Free Nelson Mandela!" When he emerged from the meeting, he thanked her publicly for the role she had played in helping to secure his release. She in turn was impressed by the extraordinary quality, integrity and antique charm of her visitor. Before the meeting, she had asked me if he was anything like Robert Mugabe. I was able to assure her that no two individuals I had ever met had less in common than Mandela and Mugabe.

Through the next few desperately tense months in South Africa, I was able on a number of occasions to help Mandela in his negotiations with FW de Klerk - the man who had made his release possible. Suffering from exhaustion, Mandela told me that he had decided to take a holiday in Cuba. I persuaded him that he should stay instead with a mutual friend in a game park in South Africa. Summoned one day to take an urgent telephone call from the great man, I imagined some fresh breakdown in negotiations, only to find that he wanted to give me the politically incorrect news that he had succeeded in shooting a buck. I tried hard to persuade him, against the advice of his associates, that he needed to meet Chief Buthelezi which, belatedly, he agreed to do and to find a way to enable De Klerk to show his own constituency that the very difficult path on which he had embarked had some benefits for them. This led to the lifting of the sports boycott.

Mandela kept urging me to join the ANC. I suggested that this might be difficult to explain to my Prime Minister. But I found myself being as skillfully co-opted as others had been. When the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee visited South Africa, Mandela insisted that I should sit on his side of the table since, he claimed, I was his adviser.

Most visitors tended to show an excessive degree of sycophancy towards him. He was never overly impressed by this. When he described Qaddafi as a great supporter of human rights, I went with Helen Suzman to remonstrate with him. "How could you be so silly, Nelson!" exclaimed Helen. He deserved more friends like her.

When I left South Africa, he insisted on making the long journey from Soweto to Pretoria to say goodbye. I promised that, when the moment came, we would do our utmost to bring investment back to South Africa. A few months later he asked me to arrange a dinner for him at the British Embassy in Washington at which, for the first time, he told representatives of all the major investment institutions that he wanted them now to return.

On his state visit to Britain as President, he arranged for some of the best musicians from Soweto to give a concert at the Albert Hall. During the interval, I reminded him that the audience were waiting for him to stand up and dance, as he always did in South Africa. He was worried that this might offend the Queen, who was sitting next to him. But stand up and dance he did, whereupon Her Majesty followed suit. This was not an outcome that could have been achieved by any other world leader.