Mandela: a giant among us

by Bill Ralston / 06 December, 2013
Bill Ralston recalls meeting a man of principle and vast compassion.
Nelson Mandela in Auckland
Nelson Mandela in Auckland in 1995. Photo/David White

It was May 10, 1994, and thousands of people, predominantly black, were flooding into Pretoria, once the bastion of white power under the previous apartheid regime. Authorities had run a barrier of several kilometres of razor wire through the city to try to control the crowds who had come to the Union Buildings to witness the inauguration of South Africa’s first black president, Nelson Rolih­lahla Mandela. Yet there was no need to fear any unrest: the throng was jubilant and peaceful.

Earlier in the morning I wandered across the lawn of the presidential residence for morning tea with the President-elect and an assorted collection of world leaders. This sounds a little self-aggrandising and it is. I had snuck into the function by sticking close to Prime Minister Jim Bolger and talking animatedly to some of his staff to bypass security. Yasser Arafat was having what appeared to be a cup of tea and opposite him Fidel Castro was glowering across the room at a gaggle of Americans who had accompanied Vice-President Al Gore and First Lady Hillary Clinton to the occasion. It was a surreal experience.


Nelson Mandela on way to prison in 1964, apartheid
Prisoners including Mandela on their way to prison in 1964. Photo/Getty Images

When I first visited South Africa just under a decade earlier, in 1985, to interview then Foreign Minister Pik Botha, such a gathering at the seat of power of the renegade white regime would have seemed a ludicrous suggestion. Although in the interview Botha had said, over and over again, “South Africa is changing.”

“Bullshit,” I thought. Yet he was right. Even then, as early as February of that year, President PW Botha had eased Mandela’s jail conditions and, under huge international pressure, offered him release on the condition he rejected violence as a political tool. Mandela, despite a quarter-century behind bars, rejected the offer, saying, “What freedom am I offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? Only free men can negotiate. A prisoner cannot enter into contracts.” A few years later the ban on his party, the ANC, was lifted and early in 1990 Mandela was free.

I was having a coffee in the presidential mansion when a nice old chap stopped beside me for a chat. He turned out to be Joe Slovo, the South African Communist Party leader, one of the leaders of the ANC’s military wing and a long-time friend of Mandela, destined to become his Minister of Housing. Somewhat presumptuously, I apologised on behalf of the nation for New Zealand’s hosting the 1981 Springbok Tour.

“No, no, no,” said Slovo. “You have no idea how inspirational we found the support of your anti-apartheid movement.” He told of the jailers on Robben Island who had tuned their TV to watch the Hamilton match, and of the prisoners’  joy when they heard the protest chants and the news the game was being cancelled.

Mandela was still imprisoned there at the time and must have been one of those cheering inmates, heartened by support from half a world away.

For many months in 1986, while the rebel New Zealand Cavaliers rugby team toured obliviously, I covered the increasingly violent protests in South Africa and the harsh repressive measures used against the people. At that time Mandela was nowhere in sight, unmentioned in the South African media, locked behind prison walls. There was not even a recent photo of him, just the shots taken in the 60s before he was jailed for life.


Sitting with the camera crew immediately in front of the stage at the inauguration, I looked up at the slight, grey-haired speaker, flanked by deputy presidents FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki. To be honest, he was not a powerful speaker, but the words he used had the strength that his voice did not.

Nelson Mandela release from prison
Mandela after release from prison in 1990. Photo/Getty Images

“We saw our country tear itself apart in terrible conflict … the time for healing of wounds has come … Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another.” Remarkable words of forgiveness. He ended, “Wat is verby, verby.” Afrikaans for “What is past is past.”

Later, by once again pretending to be Jim Bolger’s best buddy, I walked into the huge marquee where the celebratory lunch was being held. As Mandela spoke there, I heard him mention his jailers with regard. I turned, and to my astonishment saw a group of them seated at a table, among the world leaders. It was his personal gesture of reconciliation.

When Bolger walked up to speak to the President, I thrust a microphone between them and had the enormous pleasure of intoning, like some demented courtier, “Mr President, Prime Minister Jim Bolger of New Zealand.” He pumped the Prime Minister’s hand and seemed genuinely pleased Bolger had come to mark the occasion. It seemed to me that moment marked the end of years of grief over the anti-apartheid protests in New Zealand that had nearly torn our own country apart.

For most South Africans it was an even more mesmerising event. I had hired a local producer/fixer I’d used before, Jill Celliers, who had worked for outfits like the TV news agency Visnews for years covering the carnage and now, finally, it was over. She was still in a state of disbelief, relieved but incredulous at what had happened so ­relatively quickly. The country had gone from a state bordering on civil war to one of peace and reconciliation.


It is that sense of healing and reconciliation that will be Nelson Mandela’s enduring legacy to his country and his people. It was a country that could have quickly spiralled into recrimination, revenge and retribution. That it did not is heavily attributable to his leadership.

South Africa also distinguished itself by retaining a free press. Like most politicians, Mandela was often unimpressed by the media but he resisted any temptation to muzzle it. On a three-state visit to New Zealand in November 1995 he was guest speaker at the 125th anniversary of the ­parliamentary Press Gallery in Wellington. It was there I met him again. I was in the lobby when I heard then Governor-General Cath Tizard say, “Bill. Have you met President Mandela?” I turned and to my eternal embarrassment and shame I was so overawed I stammered, “Bless you”, and gave a wobbly bow that was more a curtsy. I know. I am an idiot but it is hard not to be overwhelmed when confronted by someone justifiably regarded as one of the greatest leaders the world has seen.

Nelson Mandela welcomed onto the marae 1995
Mandela is welcomed onto Turangawaewae Marae at Ngaruawahia, 1995. Photo/Yanse Martin

What I admired most was his commitment to democracy and freedom of speech, despite all he had suffered. Earlier, at the dinner, he talked of the challenges South Africa now faced. “We as a nation are engaged in ­ongoing debate in our country on how to give freedom of expression real meaning. If this is to be the case, people should not only have the right to hear what others say, but also themselves be heard. Only in this way can they become active participants in changing their lives for the better.”

Changing those lives for the better was always going to be a difficult, almost impossible task. He had inherited a country torn by decades of strife and death, with more than half the 40 million population lacking electricity or workable sewerage, 12 million with no clean water supplies and a third being illiterate.

He may not have achieved all his goals during his five-year tenure in office but he tried and he made a start. It is now up to others to ensure they can fulfil Nelson Mandela’s vision for his South Africa. It’s to be hoped they have the same commitment he did.

See also: Who is the real Nelson Mandela?
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