tribute willi hofmeyr

In the run-up to the 1994 elections, I was in charge of organising all the Mandela election rallies for the ANC in the Western Cape. I got to know Mandela fairly well during this time, sharing some precious and unforgettable moments.

My most abiding memory was how difficult it was to keep him on time, even though he was a real stickler for being on time himself. Though we would get him to the venue on time, the battle would start when he got out of the car. He would always insist on greeting and speaking to everyone on the way in - from dignitaries to activists to the cleaning or kitchen staff, his warmth and humanity stretched across all the racial and class divides.

My most memorable moment was when Mr Mandela spoke at a gathering of about 200 (mainly white) opinion-makers. He usually never spoke about his personal experiences and hardships that he suffered. Perhaps it was the more intimate setting, but that day he spoke about his engagement and negotiations with the National Party government while he was still in prison. In the process we got a glimpse into what life in prison really meant - and although he remained very matter-of-fact, there was just a little tremor in his voice that gave all of us a real sense of just how difficult and tough it was to spend 27 years in prison, often under the most inhumane conditions. Not only did his humanity shine through, but also his deep inner strength and a steely resolve. When he ended there was barely a dry eye in the room.

There are so many human moments, but one that stands out is when we met with Mr Mandela to discuss a speech he was due to deliver at a rally the next day. It was late and he was in his dressing gown and slippers. For a long time, he said nothing as the somewhat heated discussions about what he should say rolled on. Suddenly, he leaned forward. "I would like all the children to be handed over the crowd to the front where they will be safe."

This was vintage Mandela. In addition to his extraordinary charisma, leadership and self-discipline, he cares deeply about people, especially the young. This is the heart of his politics. He had the ability to reach out and touch even the most obdurate of his opponents. He had the compassion to put humanity first, always. And he had a staunch and lifelong conviction that democracy would be the final winner in South Africa.

(2007)