Sunday, February 14, 2010

Breakfast with Nelson Mandela

Me and the late Harry Gwala, in front of Nelson Mandela, back in the early 1990s in Pietermaritzburg

A few months after Nelson Mandela’s release, he came on a visit to the Kwazulu-Natal region, to assess for himself what was going on in relation to the terrible violence which was wracking the province. I was, at the time, working quite closely with Harry Gwala, who was also a Robben Island prisoner and, by virtue of that, the de facto leader of the ANC in the area.

Gwala was an amazing, albeit flawed man. He suffered from a terrible degenerative disease, which meant that he had no use of both his arms. You would think this would be something of a limitation, but it wasn’t. He was an orator like none I have ever heard. He could get a crowd raging, or weeping, or quiet and obedient, within a few sentences.

He was an unashamedly unreformed Stalinist. (In fact, I would sometimes sit turning pages of this or that work by Stalin, which he would be reading at the time). He held Stalin and Shakespeare on probably the same level – both with deep reverence and he would quote both, from memory and with the same amount of passion.

He was also a warlord, I’m afraid. He had an outright hatred of Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement – which was a breakaway Zulu-based movement in Kwazulu-Natal, which was friendly with (and many would say supported by) the apartheid state. He did not believe that talking to them would do any good and he believed that we, in the ANC, should fight fire with fire. His warlike stance was, undoubtedly, a contributing force in the escalating violence of the time.

But he called Mandela to come and visit the province. And he came. He stayed at Harry Gwala’s tiny house. It was all supposed to be fairly low key. He wanted to meet people and get to know what was happening. What we did not expect was the kind of support the man had. “Mike”, Harry Gwala said to me, “we have a secret weapon here”.

So, we drove Nelson Mandela all over Pietermaritzburg. Up hill and down dale. We drove him into every township, and wherever we went, he was greeted with crowds of people. Sometimes, it was almost impossible to actually drive the cars. People were singing, chanting, shouting, waving. People were crowding around the vehicle. People were crying. People were laughing. It was indescribable.

Early one morning, during the visit, it may have been 6 o’clock, I got a telephone call from Harry Gwala. “Mike”, he said, “I want you to come here now”. Being the naturally obedient type, I jumped into my clothes and ran to organise another priest to say Mass at the seminary, where I was teaching. I jumped into the car and rushed to Gwala’s house, which was not too far away.

I was met at the gate by Gwala. “I have to go somewhere urgently”, he said. “Please keep Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) company for breakfast”. Needless to say, I was a bit taken aback.

As I entered the lounge of Gwala’s house, I could see Mandela sitting, with his back to the window, dressed in a lounge suit. Gwala escorted me in and introduced me to Mandela. He did not rise to meet me, but shook hands very warmly, as though I was an old friend, and asked me to sit with him. (There was no dining-room in the house. Breakfast was going to be served on our laps and in the lounge). There I was, sitting, alone, with the mythical Nelson Mandela. Here was the man who had been in prison for 27 years; who had made that immortal speech from the dock about being prepared to die in the fight against white domination and against black domination; the man who picture none of us were allowed to see until very recently; the man on whom the hopes of millions of people in the country depended. There I was, about to have breakfast with him.

We spoke for quite some time. It was mostly on the situation in Kwazulu-Natal. And I could tell, even then, that his view of the world was one very different indeed from Harry Gwala. But there was one incident, during that breakfast, which remains indelibly etched in my memory.

At one point, one of the women who had been cooking breakfast in the kitchen came in and whispered in my ear, that there was someone who desperately wanted to see Mr Mandela. She addressed the request to me, out of a kind of reverence for Mandela himself – almost as though the use of a proxy was necessary in the face of such eminence.

I asked Mr Mandela, if he would mind meeting a young member of the ANC youth. He had no hesitation. “Of course!”, he said, “Of course!”. The message was relayed. Then, shuffling into the room, on his knees, with his eyes averted, came a boy, who could not have been more than 17 years old. He was on his knees, out of respect. He averted his eyes, because to look at the man would be too much of a disrespect for his person.

Mandela was holding a teacup full of tea. When he saw the youth come in, he passed the cup to me and, saying nothing, struggled to his feet, with a fair amount of difficulty. The youth was now terrified and started shaking. “I always stand in the presence of a young lion”, said Mandela. “Thank you for coming to see me”.

When I see the politicians of today, puffed up with too much food; expensive whiskey; and too much reverence being shown to them for their less than admirable persons, I remember this incident. I think I can say, without any doubt, that it changed me forever. I am pretty sure it had the same effect on that young boy.

Another great leader, (one whom I had the privilege of serving under as a priest), made the same point, in different words. Desmond Tutu said that we need to genuflect to our neighbours. Ah yes, these were really great leaders. How much they stand out and how sad the contrast with what we have today.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this profound story, Mike. Many blessings upon you...

  2. I, also, have met both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Tutu. It is a humbling, wonderful experience.

  3. News About Nelson Mandela's passing just went live a few minutes ago & this is such a touching read. An inspiring reminder of the kind of leader the world was once blessed with. Thank you.

  4. If only we all were half the person he was what a wonderful world we would have