Happy memories of asking the Nelson Mandela about his first vote

Charlie Bird: I had the good fortune to meet Mandela many times as a journalist. It was always magical

Journalist and broadcaster Charlie Bird on Mandela: “He radiated a magnetism I had never experienced before”

Journalist and broadcaster Charlie Bird on Mandela: “He radiated a magnetism I had never experienced before”


July 1st, 1990, was a memorable day in Dublin when almost half a million people turned out on the streets of the capital to welcome home the Irish team from Italia 90.

But on that same day another special moment occurred. Just months after being freed from prison after 27 years in captivity, Nelson Mandela arrived in Ireland to say “thank you” to those who had campaigned for his release.

Mandela was an iconic figure for whom people around the world had campaigned tirelessly for many years, to force the apartheid regime in South Africa to set him free.

Indeed Ireland played no small part in that campaign, from Louise and Kader Asmal and the Irish Anti- Apartheid Movement to the Dunnes Stores workers and many others

So that lovely summer’s day in July as an RTÉ reporter I was assigned to cover Mandela’s arrival at Dublin Airport and hopefully get the first words with him after he landed.

First encounter
The airport was chaotic as Mandela well-wishers and supporters of the Irish team thronged together. Just before the ANC leader’s plane touched down, the reporters covering the event were led out on to the tarmac. As I was passing Gerry Collins, the then minister for foreign affairs, I asked him if he would try to steer Mandela in my direction so I could try to have a few worlds with him. Gerry winked and said “I’ll do my best.”

And that’s what he did. Watched by some bewildered officials after the official ceremony, he guided the elderly ANC leader by the elbow across to the waiting press and directly towards me. Mandela caught me completely off guard and offered an outstretched hand and a gentle handshake before I had time to utter a word to him.

So there was no quick interview, just a few mumbled incoherent words from me and a smile from this remarkable man.

As he walked on, he radiated a magnetism I had never experienced before. Later in the afternoon at a moving ceremony at the Mansion House, Mandela was officially given the freedom of the city.

Again the crowds who had come to see the returning soccer heroes and those who just wanted to catch a glimpse of this man who had been incarcerated for so long stood together, watching this figure, now standing in the heart of Dublin – it was a magical moment.

A few years later, I was to have another encounter with Mandela, this time high up in the mountains in Natal in rural South Africa. I was part of the RTÉ team assigned to cover the historic elections that heralded the end of the apartheid regime.

At dawn on April 27th, 1994, as a bright orange sun rose over the village of Inanda, I watched thousands of brightly clad black South Africans form a line as far as the eye could see, waiting patiently so they could cast their first vote.

In his book, Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela set the scene: “I voted on April 27th, the second of four days of voting, and I chose to vote in Natal to show the people in that divided province that there was no danger in going to the polling stations.”

And so that’s where I found myself that day, along with the rest of the world’s media. When Mandela’s car arrived, it stopped well short of the polling station – and just a short distance from where I was standing. The ANC leader had decided before he cast his ballot to visit the grave of a former comrade.

Question from the crowd
As he passed just feet away from me, I shouted at him “Who are you going to vote for?” Amid the noise and chaos, I wasn’t certain if he had heard me. And indeed other reporters may have shouted the same question. But years later, when reading his

autobiography, I came across his recollection of that morning.

“Before I entered the polling station, an irreverent member of the press called out, ‘Mr Mandela, who are you voting for?’ I laughed. ‘You know’, I said, ‘I have been agonising over that choice all morning.’ I marked an X in the box next to the letters ANC and then slipped my folded ballot paper into a simple wooden box. I had cast the first vote of my life.” And that was my second magical encounter with Mandela.

A few years later, Kader Asmal arranged for Mandela to sign a copy of his autobiography for me.

As a working reporter, I was to meet Mandela on a number of other occasions. But perhaps the funniest of all was in March 1996, when president Mary Robinson was on the first State visit to South Africa.

A small group of Irish journalists were waiting in a small room at the airport in Cape Town for Mrs Robinson’s plane to arrive. The group included my RTÉ colleagues Ed Mulhall, Michael Lee and Denis Devane, as well as Ed O’Loughlin from The Irish Times and Nicola Byrne, a freelance journalist. The door opened and in walked a smiling Mandela who shook our hands warmly.

A modest proposal
As he was shaking Nicola’s hand, there was a glint in his eye. He asked Nicola if she was married – to which, in a haltering voice. she replied no. He then turned to the room and said “If I weren’t married, I would propose to you.” You can imagine the reaction in the room.

Later, on the RTÉ News at One with Seán O’Rourke, I mentioned the proposal and within hours it had been picked up by news agencies and was carried by a number of newspapers in South Africa.

I was to have several other encounters with Nelson Mandela but, in all my 38 years as a journalist, I’ve never met anyone who radiated such a powerful aura of kindness and humanity.

Even though the news is sad today, there is no doubt that Madiba’s spirit will live on.

Charlie Bird is a journalist and broadcaster

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