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Brief encounters of a special kind

A personal tribute to Nelson Mandela

by Runi Khan

The then Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat, left, and South African president Nelson Mandela shake hands on March 26, 1997 after arriving in Dhaka’s Suhrawardy Udyan to attend a ceremony marking silver jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh’s independence. — AFP photoThe then Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat, left, and South African president Nelson Mandela shake hands on March 26, 1997 after arriving in Dhaka’s Suhrawardy Udyan to attend a ceremony marking silver jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh’s independence. — AFP photo

The best tribute we can pay to him is to do whatever we can to contribute to honouring the oneness of humanity and working for peace and reconciliation as he did. Dalai Lama, December 2013

ON FRIDAY, December 6, the world woke up to the sad news of President Nelson Mandela’s passing away. Though it was known for months that ‘Time’s winged chariot’ was fast approaching, the news of President Mandela’s death came as a shock. It was 9:00pm on Thursday, December 5, that he took his last breath. Millions around the world are mourning. ‘One of the brightest lights of the world has gone out’ is what the British prime minister had to say as he responded to the sad news. Presidents have praised him without reserve; leaders have spoken of his legacy of forgiveness and reconciliation. Former US president Bill Clinton described him as a ‘champion of human dignity and freedom’ and Aung San Suu Kyi noted the passing away of ‘a great human being who…made us understand that we can change the world’. Others touched on his extraordinary generosity, compassion and forgiveness — a giant figure who symbolised equality, justice and humility. One commentator simply said ‘he lived an extraordinary life in a very ordinary way’, a heartfelt statement which captured the essence of the man Mandela was. Fondly known as Madiba, he leaves behind a lasting legacy not only for his own country, the Rainbow Nation of South Africa, but also for the continent of Africa and the world at large.
I feel profoundly honoured to have had a few close encounters with this great man in person. My first was in 1993 at his gala birthday celebration in Johannesburg when I visited South Africa to meet the family of my daughter’s then fiancé Andrew Feinstein. A member of the ANC since his student days, Andrew was one of the facilitators of the constitutional negotiations during South Africa’s transition process while preparations were in progress for the 1994 elections. He and my daughter were invited to Madiba’s birthday celebration and there was excitement in the air. Andrew was beaming with happiness to have Simone accompany him and share what he knew would be a memorable experience. Little did I know that Andrew had a surprise in store for me too; I was to join them at their table that night. He had gone to a lot of trouble to make this happen. I was touched at his thoughtfulness and could hardly contain my excitement and remember feeling like a teenager going to her first ball. I would finally meet the man who I had been besotted with as a young romantic idealist. Mandela was our icon for independence and justice and the inspiration to raise our voice against apartheid. Memories of us as students in London in the 1960s standing in front of South Africa House came flooding back.
The birthday party was an evening never to be forgotten — an evening decked with rainbow colours, an evening where energy flowed from black to brown to white, an evening of music of a kind which left the heart pounding and the soul punctured with a weave of emotions forming a tapestry of hope for a new South Africa, which the world was waiting to see emerge. The voices of Sibongile Khumalo, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the sounds of Hugh Masekela’s trumpet echoed through the air. It was a euphoric and exhilarating experience. This was a grand and formal event and I was warned by both Andrew and Simone, who knew me all too well, that I should not be impulsive and traipse off to meet Madiba, but I did just that! Carried away by the moment after we had finished our first course, and noting that Andrew and Simone were engrossed in conversation, I walked straight to Madiba’s table. As the music paused, I went up to him and said, ‘Mr Mandela, can I wish you a “Happy Birthday”? I am a Bangladeshi from London and so privileged to be here that I know I would never forgive myself if I did not wish you personally.’ I reached my hands out to him, which he took standing up, put his arms round me and said in his characteristically measured pace, ‘I am so happy and it is my honour that you are here. Thank you for coming.’ That was it. I was flushed and nervous. How could I have dared to do what I did? I just gave him a quick hug and rushed back to the table. It was a walk across three rows of tables only, back to where we were sitting, but it felt like a mile. I saw nothing, heard nothing and my feet were off the ground. I sat down, composed myself and then told Simone and Andrew that I had met Mandela, wished him and got a hug in return! They would not believe me at first and then when they did they reprimanded me lovingly. A brief encounter it was but one which felt magical — to have stood in front of the man who had suffered for his beliefs his entire life, realised a dream for a free and unified South Africa and now was at the last leg of his journey from prison to presidency.
My second encounter was in 1996 when president Mandela was invited to attend the 25th anniversary of the independence of Bangladesh along with two other world leaders, Mr Yasser Arafat from Palestine and Mr Mesut Yilmaz, the Turkish president. They arrived in Dhaka on the 24th of March 1996 and were driven straight to Sheraton Hotel where high security measures had been put in place. South Africa had by then become my second home, with a daughter closer to me than life itself, married to Andrew who was now an ANC member of parliament at the National Assembly in Cape Town. During my periodic and fairly long visits to both these cities, I started work on opening up cultural dialogues and facilitate trade between South Africa and Bangladesh. The market was untapped with many possibilities. My perseverance luckily generated some results and I continued to pursue these endeavours. On a trip via Delhi to Dhaka, I also made contact with the first appointed high commissioner of South Africa to India, Mr Jerry Matjila, as he was also accredited to Bangladesh. Jerry had spent many of the apartheid years in exile, was a delightful man, very well read and articulate, and we soon became good friends.
When Mandela’s visit to Bangladesh was confirmed Jerry requested me to act as their family in Dhaka and take care of the visiting team. I was more than happy to play host to President Mandela and his entourage — all of them senior comrades of the ANC. Jerry also requested me to take Zenani, Mandela’s daughter, who accompanied him, for a drive around town and for some shopping. This allowed me to spend a few hours with Zenani and get a glimpse into how they coped with not having their father around them as they grew up. What happened at the end of the visit was quite delightful although I did not think so then. It begins with my mother wanting to meet Mandela during his trip and me telling her that it was not possible due to strict security and VVIP protocol. She kept insisting and I kept saying that professionally it would not be correct. Amma grumbled, sulked and was visibly annoyed, sure that if I wanted to I could have fixed a meeting. During the official visit, I would often find myself sitting with the visiting entourage in between engagements in one of the annex rooms next to the presidential suit. Madiba would often walk in and out, once even to make himself a cup of tea — quite extraordinary. I missed my mother not being there. I was soon informed that Madiba had asked to meet with both our country’s leading ladies — the Bangladesh prime minister and the leader of the opposition, to try and initiate dialogue between them in the interest of the country.
The meetings did take place but most of us were moved out of the area and the feedback we got is best not mentioned! The days flew by fast and it was time to depart. We were all gathered in the hotel lobby, and I was busy making sure everything was perfectly in place when I turned towards the president who had just come down the lift, only to see my mother in a beautiful white silk sari walking up to him and starting to converse. I was shocked and embarrassed wondering how on earth she had got in. She was handing a package to President Mandela and he in turn had his million-dollar smile on his face, attending to her and then giving her an embrace. The difference of their heights was a sight to see. My mother then swiftly moved away, walked straight past me but making sure I caught that one-up triumphant glance! I must say there was a mixed feeling of being secretly glad that she did get to meet Madiba but also very annoyed that she did what she did despite my telling her not to! On reflection, it did bear an uncanny resonance to what I did in 1993. I kept wondering how she got in and what it was that she had handed over to Mandela. I learnt later from the doorman that she simply said that her daughter was in charge of the delegation and had pointed to me, so he let her in. My mother was a beautiful woman and her silver hair added to the dignity and grace with which she carried herself and she certainly could, as the saying goes, get away with murder. When I asked her what it was she had given to Mandela, she flatly refused to tell me.
The story did not end here. A week or two later, Andrew received a call from President Mandela’s office in Cape Town asking him to come and see him. He was somewhat nervous as it was not usual for a junior MP to be called to the president’s office and all kinds of anxious thoughts passed his mind. On arriving at the president’s office, Madiba stood up holding what looked like some crumpled up old foreign language newspaper. He had a broad grin on his face as he watched Andrew approach. Andrew was bewildered and the president declared, ‘Here, this is for you, your grandmother in Bangladesh has sent some homemade mango pickle and guava jelly for you, she asked me to give it to you personally and also gave me two jars.’ Andrew could hardly believe his ears and was relieved to see that Madiba had seen the humour of it all. A president carrying homemade jars of pickles and jelly 6,000 miles or more for one of his junior MPs was indeed quite novel. President Mandela’s visit to Bangladesh in 1996 led to my appointment to represent his country as the honorary consul of the Republic of South Africa for Bangladesh and for me it was particularly significant as the appointment was confirmed under his signature. It kept me in touch with the many hard political and economic choices that were being made in South Africa under a great leadership, including the fact that Madiba relinquished his presidentship and political life after one term in the broader interests of letting a new generation take South Africa forward.
It was on the day Mr Nelson Mandela, the first black president of the new democratic South Africa, stepped down from parliament, that my first grandchild had his first encounter with Madiba. The president had just delivered his farewell speech leaving his parliamentary colleagues spellbound and in tears. He slowly walked out of the building and as he did so saw a mother with a baby standing outside. She just happened to be my daughter Simone with my baby grandson Misha in her arms. She had taken Misha to the visitors’ gallery for this historic occasion but left the gallery as the standing ovation continued inside to avoid the rush at the exit point. Mandela came up to her and asked her if he could hold the baby, to her surprise recognising her as Andrew’s wife, which shows his touching ability to be personal. He swiftly took Misha in his arms, then stopped a star-struck American tourist outside — oblivious to security measures — and asked her to take a photograph of him and Misha. He then said to Simone, ‘You see, when he grows up he can ask you: “Who is this old man?”’ He then firmly instructed the tourist to take Simone’s address to send her the photograph! It is an instamatic amateur shot but treasured by all of us. Recollecting and sharing some of these brief encounters with Madiba I suppose is my way of coping with the loss and deep sadness I feel at his passing.
Runi Khan is founder-director of Culturepot Global, and honorary for the Republic of South Africa in Bangladesh (1996 to 2006).

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