tribute robyn curnow

Nelson Mandela never lost his sense of humour. He was a funny man; making people laugh with dry, sardonic and quick-witted one-liners. He made fun of almost everything - including himself. He was the master of self-deprecation. I don't know how many times I heard him joke with a crowd after he resigned as President, ‘I am now just a pensioner, without a job.' He got a laugh every time.

He used humour to defuse tension and to make other people feel comfortable around him. A classic Madiba moment was when I interviewed him on his 90th birthday at his home in Qunu. Before the interview, while everyone fussed about him, he said, ‘What day is this' - pretending not know that it was his 90th birthday. We all laughed too loudly.

But do not be mistaken: Mandela could also be a harsh critic and strict disciplinarian. He was also a stickler for time-keeping. His grandchildren, who I interviewed around his 90th birthday, all told me stories of how he could get grumpy when they were late, especially for a meal. He hated being kept waiting at the dinner table.

He loved eating but he was disciplined about his diet and keeping fit. Even while he was in prison there are stories of him exercising in his cell. Former prison comrades also say he was one of the physically strongest prisoners during the years they were forced to break rocks in the Robben Island limestone quarry. He was much older than many of the other prisoners but he had legendary stamina and strength.

I have seen him quite disapproving of unhealthy habits - he seemed particularly worried about men with large tummies. Once, I saw him take aside a big-bellied cameraman and lecture him on the dangers of being overweight. His grandson told me Madiba cornered and berated fat men quite often - much to his family's embarrassment.


He was a complex man - with his own peculiar set of quirks and cheeky habits - and it was those qualities that endeared him to so many. That he was a flirt, who loved having women around him. That he was acutely image conscious and loved to dress well. Those pithy foibles tell a story of a great man, who in the final reckoning was infallibly human.

All in all, Mandela's magic came from a deep sense of self-worth. He was a wonderfully confident man, with an intrinsic understanding of his personal values and standards. He did not appear to be plagued by self-doubt or inner turmoil. For me that was the essence of his power - he was unshakably himself. As Graca Machel, his wife told me, ‘He is so comfortable in his own skin'