It was 1998. I was invited by a friend in the ANC leadership to attend an intimate breakfast where Nelson Mandela was to be the speaker.
I will never forget sitting at that table over a coffee and excited conversation when the room fell silent. We turned to see him enter, wearing his generous smile and Madiba shirt, he casually made his way to the podium. A tall, distinguished, very good looking man, with an aura about him.
That morning his words were not those of a President. They were an inspiring message from a humble brave man who had followed his dream. At great personal sacrifice. A man who held only hope and reconciliation in his heart. A man who encouraged us to do the same.
He spoke of the importance of peaceful resolve. Of freedom and equality for all. Of human rights, never to be taken for granted. Of working towards an improved South Africa. I drank in his every word. Laughed with him as his sense of humor crept through. Knowing without a doubt that I was in the presence of greatness.
He shared some anecdotes from his years in prison. One I remember clearly from his time on Robben Island, where he lived mostly in isolation, was how for those 18 years he never saw a child. And that it was something that he longed for. To hear a child’s laughter. Then a baby was born to one of the wardens and he brought it for Mandela to see. The joy it brought. That meaningful gift of ‘friendship’.
He spoke about pausing alongside the road outside Paarl after his release, to speak to one of the families that had stopped there in the hope of catching a glimpse of this man that hadn’t been seen in public for 27 years. How this Afrikaans couple with their small children warmly greeted him, celebrated his freedom and shared in the hope for a better South Africa. How they chatted for a while. Embraced. And only then was he ready to make his way to the City Hall to address the waiting crowds.
Something touched my heart in that hour. A message so deep that I could not ignore it. I’ve embraced his words and his gentle lesson and allowed them to morph into my very being. A girl from the Free State, a white South African, a citizen of a damaged country in need of nurturing and care. Mandela told me on that day that nothing is impossible, and I believed him.
After breakfast Madiba circulated the room, lingering and talking to us. He walked up to me and I introduced myself and took his hand. Holding on to it for longer than is decent. He asked me about myself, we spoke a while, he looked at me and he saw and he encouraged.
Today. As the country celebrates Mandela’s 95th Birthday with Mandela Day, many companies and individuals have contributed 67 minutes of their time to volunteer, donate, feed, embrace and give to needy projects around the country. Each minute marking one of the year’s Mandela spent fighting for an improved world.
It warms my heart to see the nation stand united in love and respect for this great man. Although my hope is rather that we should honour Mandela and his legacy every day. By living more like he did. By breaking down barriers and forging new friendships. By falling in love with hope and each other. A charity or organisation to which we can commit ourselves.
That is how I try to live my life, in my very humble way, ever inspired to look towards others, to find compassion, to learn and be just a tiny bit like this great man I was lucky enough to meet.
There’s a Mandela in each one of us. All we need to do, is set him free.