I only kind of remember meeting Nelson Mandela. I don’t know how old I was. I don’t know where it was. I don’t know when it was. I know that it was at the opening of a project that the engineering firm my mom worked at was responsible for. But that’s all I know.
I remember standing in a line as Madiba walked towards the marquee. He was shaking everyone’s hand as he walked past. He came to me. I don’t know what I said, or what he said. We shook hands. Then he moved on. A fleeting meeting if there ever was one. But that wasn’t the end of my Madiba moment.
Standing to my right was my gran. She must have been in her late 70s at the time. Her hair was white, and her face wrinkled. She was wearing a floral print dress. Her and Madiba were, now that I think about it, probably a very similar age. Mandela stopped in front of her, held her hand, and he chatted to her. Not just greeted her like he had everyone else. He actually stopped and talked to her. I don’t know what they spoke about – but I remember distinctly that he clasped her hands in his for the entire time. He was smiling throughout. That I will never forget.
After we left and drove to East London, I remember Gran sitting and holding the hand that Madiba had held. Tears welled up in her eyes. Like Madiba, she was smiling broadly. I don’t ever remember seeing her that happy.
My Madiba moment didn’t actually involve me, but it affected me more than you can imagine. Here was a man who cared enough to listen to what an old white lady had to say, who cared enough to hold her hand, and who cared enough to touch her soul.
I don’t know what my gran’s political views were. I don’t know who she voted for – or even if she voted at all. But I know that Madiba touched her soul and made her happy, possibly the happiest I’ve ever known her to be. I knew there had to be something special about this man, and as I read and heard and found out more about him, I realised just how special a man he was. He became an icon – not because of the books and stories and facts, but because of how he touched my life through a woman I loved and held so dear to my heart.
It was an honour and a privilege to meet Madiba, but it was an even bigger privilege to see him make my gran so happy.
Rest in peace, Tata. Siyabonga.