When I tell people that I met Nelson Mandela in Cape Town in 1994, the reaction is, frankly, mixed…

…my wife rolls her eyes as she does when I tell my Heimlich Maneuver story in which I saved the life of a tourist from death by suffocation from a gobstopper on the Brighton to Victoria train about five years ago. T’is a true story and I recount it with glee on demand.

If the listener is a fellow Irishman/woman they will fix me with a gaze which is a cross between disbelief and loathing. I mark this down to our national propensity to put each other down. The unspoken sentiment is: “and how, in the name of God, would the likes of you be in Cape Town, let alone meeting Nelson Mandela”.

The final reaction is my favorite: hushed awe. This mainly comes from young people and devotees of Mandela.

It truly was an “awesome” meeting. In 1994 I was then Commercial Director of Financial Times Television which I was helping to integrate into Thames Television which had been bought by Pearson. It was a fantastic job. I flew around the world attending all the top conferences and doing television rights deals for FTTV programming. We had a close association with The World Economic Forum and this meant I attended their main Davos Forum every year and their regional conferences as well. Access was fairly unrestricted once inside the security cordon and so I found myself at a buffet lunch in The Mount Nelson Hotel, Cape Town for the Africa Summit in 1994 and at which all the major leaders were in attendance – Mandela, Mugabe, deKlerk, Joe Slovo, Pallo Jordan etc.

President Mandela was standing and speaking with people who came up to him; I waited my turn and during which time I was, embarrassingly, told off by his bodyguards for having my hands in my pockets. I got my chance. I approached him, expecting the encounter to be very short and so I prepared a 30 second speech:

“Mr. President”, I started, “I know you have just come back from Ireland. I’m Irish and I hope you had a good time there. Also, my wife marched for you in Trafalgar Square and she told me that if I failed to meet you at this conference I was not to come home”.

I expected him to nod benignly and to move onto the next person. But he didn’t. As I remember it, he held my hand and would not let it go. He threw back his head and laughed very loudly and, for what seemed to me to be an inordinately long time given the quality of the joke.

Then, he looked deep into my eyes, into my soul it seemed, and spoke very very slowly. I started to panic.

“Her struggle” he said, followed by a long pause, “was my struggle”. Interesting that these were the words President Obama used yesterday in his speech. A Mandela refrain, perhaps. He then said more about Ireland and something else than I have forgotten because by then I had disconnected from reality.

I moved away in a bit of a blur and went into the garden for a cigarette, which at the time I smoked, and to recover. Later I met Mr. de Klerk and Mr. Mugabe but these were entirely different encounters and another story.

What struck me most about Mr. Mandela was what seems to strike everyone – how unhurried he appeared. In that moment, it seemed, I was all that mattered to him. He didn’t look left nor right just held eye contact without wavering. Many great leaders are said to have this ability and some believe it is cultivated. I like to think not in the case of Mr. Mandela and that amazingly over 27 years in prison he learned mindfulness, how to live in the present and, I suppose, to laugh at mediocre jokes.

His speech to the Forum on that day is here: http://www.sahistory.org.za/article/address-president-republic-south-africa-nelson-mandela-world-economic-forum-southern-africa-

One thought on “When I tell people that I met Nelson Mandela in Cape Town in 1994, the reaction is, frankly, mixed…

  1. a moving story Ciaran and totally believed here. Everyone seems to say that they felt they (and only they) mattered while in conversation with him.

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